WASHINGTON — When politics itself becomes religion, it’s easy to lose sight of what an authentically religious voice sounds like in public life.
This explains one of the idiosyncrasies of our moment. Voters’ religious obligations (or lack thereof) are among the most powerful predictors of how they will cast their votes. But actual religious questions mean little or nothing in our public life.
There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is the fusion of religious conservatism and resistance conservatism. These have been close cousins since the passage of the Civil Rights Act under Lyndon B. Johnson pushed millions of conservative white Democrats, many of them devout evangelicals, into the Republican Party.
But before the rise of Donald Trump, the two brands of social conservatism had different voices. Religious conservatives emphasized abortion, family, old-fashioned values and the rights of the traditional people in an increasingly secular society. The backlash conservatism was sharper, more focused on crime, race, and immigration.
On the face of it, the Republicans’ campaign this year is all about resistance. Across the country, the party’s advertising emphasizes rising crime, immigration and the threat of ‘open borders’.
Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish politics from resistance from the religious kind, in part because of the wave of Christian nationalism, defined by flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today (which is critical of the idea) as “the belief that defines the American nation by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.” Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orban has become a hero to many conservatives by combining a hardline against immigration with a defense of what he calls “Christian freedom.”
The link between backlash and religious conservatism is most apparent in a new front in the culture war targeting public schools: Republicans have simultaneously condemned the “critical race theory” and any doctrine related to homosexuality or transgender Americans.
Last week, 33 Republican members of Congress introduced a bill modeled on Florida’s “don’t say gay” law, as critics are describing it. Their proposal would prohibit the use of federal money “to develop, implement, facilitate or fund any sexually oriented program, event or literature for children under the age of 10.” A bill introduced in Idaho would ban drag performances in all public venues.
The mishmash of themes points to one old truth and one new. Religion has long been a stand-in for culture and identity. The battles waged in his name often have less to do with God or theology than with ways of life—and, of course, power. No one has understood this better than Trump.
But after being defeated at key points, the culture warriors had to break new ground. The attack on transgender people and drag queens reflects a pullout from the fight against same-sex marriage, which is now endorsed by 71% of Americans, according to Gallup, including a majority of Republicans.
And the religious conservatives’ biggest victory—the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade—has turned abortion policies against them.
In 2004, Gallup found that 30% of those who called themselves pro-life would vote only for a candidate who shared their views on abortion; only 11% of pro-choice voters have made that commitment. President George W. Bush won 90% of these abortion opponents.
This year, Democrats will vote on abortion in response to the Supreme Court. The Pew Research Center found that 75% of Democratic voters view abortion as a “very important” issue, compared to 39% of Republicans. As a result, Republican candidates can still describe themselves as “pro-life,” but they are increasingly reluctant to say exactly what this means. Severe restrictions were largely theoretical when Roe protected abortion rights.
The most compelling evidence that identity, not faith, drives politics is the behavior of two of the most devout Christian groups in the nation: white evangelicals and black Protestants. According to the Oct. 10-16 data provided to me by Pew, white evangelicals supported Republican candidates for Congress over Democrats by 75% to 13%. Black Protestants voted 70 to 4 percent for Democrats.
One of the country’s most prominent black Protestants is on the list next month. Democratic Senator from Georgia, Raphael G. Warnock, is also a pastor and author of “The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness,” a reflection on the interaction between piety and activism.
In his conclusion, Warnock quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Any religion that claims to be involved in people’s souls and not involved in the slums that doom them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them. is a religion as dry as dust.”
It would be a blessing if religious voters reflected on and debated this proposition. But if our divisions aren’t really about religion, the odds are, unfortunately, very slim.
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EJ Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.