Not Quite Dead


Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.

Wag the Tail

Among the most respected of intellectual endeavors is political science. Analysts who read and reason beyond national borders, finding implications in countries many of us have never heard of, they can be an intimidating lot. Experts in economy and psychology, they tell us what the big picture looks like—why we do what we do. And almost universally they disdain religion. We’re talking politics here, why don’t you go sit at the kid’s table? Religion is the stuff and nonsense of make-believe. What politics is about is who has the biggest bombs and bank accounts. Those who impact the world in real ways. And yet.

I would never claim to be up-to-date on current events. I don’t have time to read newspapers and if my friends didn’t send me pertinent articles now and again I might still believe that social justice is more important than the color of an anonymous dress. When no less than an authority than the New York Times speaks, however, I do have to pause a minute or two to consider the implications. Frank Bruni has recently been writing on the Opinion Pages about those ultimate strange bedfellows, religion and politics. I may have got the order wrong, but that’s for political scientists to determine.

Many people don’t consider that religion can be, in some respects, scientifically analyzed. As a deeply divided nation, one factor that even political scientists should note is that yes, religion does count. No matter how naively conceived, people vote with their faith behind that polling curtain. The Republican Party realized this in the 1980s. If you take just one or two religious issues and make them the platform on which you stand, you can garner a disproportionate amount of the conservative evangelical vote. A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute, according to Bruni, demonstrates just how disproportionate the outcome can be. Surveys may not be precise, but less than 20 percent of Americans are white evangelical Protestants. Yet their issues are the ones that make or break elections.

Life has a way of making one cynical. I grew up a white evangelical Protestant. Although my viewpoint has evolved with my education, I can’t shake two of those qualifiers even if I want to. I read political scientists dismissing religion as a bogus topic, mere twaddle to fill the daub of inert minds walled in by primitive thinking. And I read the occasional news story that demonstrates that the facts don’t fit the premise. Do we need to understand religion? Absolutely not, I’m told. But in the end, even the analysts of the political beast will have to realize that tails wag dogs just as surely as raising hackles will make any mammal appear larger than it really is.

Not a tail to be seen...

Not a tail to be seen…