“If that is what religion has become, I want nothing to do with any of it.” This came from a young adult, speaking about the takeover of religion by America’s political right-wing. My young friend is not alone. There are millions of young and not so young Americans echoing the same sentiment.
While “Christian” in the popular mind now seems to mean right-wing politics, authentic religion in America is being increasingly sidelined, having been tarred with the same brush. Nobody who takes a serious look should have the slightest doubt that for years religious popularity has been in a free fall. People, young and old, have bailed out of organized religion in massive numbers. While for some time that has been true for the progressive or liberal churches, for the last decade it has also been true for evangelical institutions. Today there are fewer emerging megachurches, and many that became prominent 20 years ago are beginning to fade, with some even closing. (If you want the statistical evidence for these statements, take a look at "The End of White Christian America," a recent well-researched analysis by Robert P. Jones.)
While the reasons for this decline are many and complex, chief among them is the emergence of a strident new form of fundamentalism. This institutional phenomenon has its roots not in traditional Christian ethics but in a carefully designed political perspective. In many conservative churches the way of Jesus has been turned on its head and now looks more like proclamations by the Tea Party than it does the Sermon on the Mount. While American religion had been moving in that direction for a number of years, the drift became an avalanche with the coming of the non-religious secularist, Donald Trump.
His political appeal, which includes racism, nationalism, militarism and xenophobia, has invited a peculiar too-easy transition for much of the American evangelical community. Trump, who is dedicated to issues that are the opposite of Jesus-based ethics, was elected with the wholehearted support of 81 to 86 percent of America’s evangelical voters. One of the results is that thoughtful American adults have bailed out of their churches in significant numbers.
The strength of American Christianity was formerly seen in how the nation consistently adopted a societal agenda that institutionalized justice, economic equality, civil rights, world peace, ecological sensitivity and compassion for the left out. America’s mainline churches and synagogues supported public policies and laws that flowed from these ethical norms. From civil rights to immigration, America’s churches traditionally backed what they saw as a dynamic world-view flowing from Jesus’ perspective on the shape of a more just social order.
What part of Trump’s agenda can be justified by citing the ethics of Jesus? Is it “America first,” a wall on our southern border, the removal of health insurance from 23 million Americans, calling climate change a hoax and doing away with any program to counter global warming, the proliferation of firearms in everyone’s hands or the massive arms buildup?
At the same time, while liberal religion was working for and witnessing social and economic justice, it found itself hindered by anarchists and other advocates of violence who resorted to the destruction of property, disruption at demonstrations and threats of assassination. Liberals have no affinity or a common cause with these people, and have consistently joined the rest of society in repudiating them. Nevertheless, there are conservatives who brand these activities to be the very essence of liberalism.
Why progressive religion has stood quietly while evangelicals have continued to define religion in Tea Party-like terms remains unclear. This is not only a political obscenity, it is also a perversion of the essential ethic that has defined the Christian imperative. It is past time we branded this religious perversion for what it is: a confiscation of religion by political operatives.