Karl Rove’s grand project to turn America into an “ownership society” with a permanent Republican majority has failed, sending the “Boy Genius” back to Texas in retirement, his political dreams dream in tatters. Many conservatives imagine that this is the result of a series of series of tactical mistakes – the bungling of Iraq, Republican pork and corruption, failure to adhere to true conservative principles -- that can be corrected in the future. The truth is that the Rovian hope was futile from the get-go and the religious and political right not only have no realistic hope of regaining the high ground, they are well on their way to losing the country due to profound social forces that are beyond their control.
It is not just those on the right who are clueless, many to their left do not appreciate the long term advantages that they enjoy. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists, and Dan Gilbert’s The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical Americans are Winning the Culture War describe how Dominionists are poised to turn America into a hard right theocracy in league with sympathetic corporate interests in a fascistic rerun to 1933. It is just not going to happen.
I and others researching the sociology of modern societies are finding that the United States is in the midst of a radical social, political and religious transformation that tells us where the county is going this century and it looks like a secular Democrat’s dream. The central fact is that every western democracy is undergoing a spontaneous secularization of a depth never before seen in history.
In France, for example, only a quarter believe a supreme being exists (many of them are Muslims), a third are outright atheists and two thirds don’t think God exists, leaving two-thirds nonbelievers.
The Nordic countries and Japan are, if anything, more nonreligious and in no advanced nation aside from the U.S. does a majority have no doubt God exists. According to the world Christian Encyclopedia, the number of the global nonreligious rose from a few million in 1900 to a billion in 2000. No religion has grown with such rapidity.
In democratic societies the great secularization has occurred almost entirely due to spontaneous voluntary conversion. The only major faith that has grown significantly over the same period, Islam, did so mainly by rapid reproduction.
Once thought to be a paragon of traditional faith, the letters of Mother Teresa have revealed that she was a surprisingly modern woman, one with such serious doubts about the existence of God for fifty years that she stopped praying before death.
With the national mythos seeing religious faith as integral to the national character, the U.S. was the one “first world” country that seemed immune to popular secularization. But survey data leaves no doubt that the nation is undergoing a delayed yet rapid secularization.
In the 1950s, Gallup data indicated that only a couple million did not believe in a supreme being, 95% did. Harris polls designed to discover what Americans really think about God have found that believers have declined to three quarters and atheists and agnostics make up over a fifth of the population. Far from being a tiny minority, disbelievers number some 60 million, matching the Catholics and outnumbering Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Southern Baptists, combined, twofold.
The religious right has never been close to constituting a majority. It makes up a most of a third of the country and it has already peaked. Gallup polls show that Bible literalists are sinking so fast that they will soon be overtaken by Bible skeptics. Church membership is slipping, leaving only a fifth of the nation in church on a typical Sunday morning. Prayer is becoming less prevalent, Christians as a whole are in decline, the men are leaving the pews and youth is increasingly irreligious and progressive. Even the mighty Southern Baptist church laments that “evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration.”
It has long been understood that popular religiosity tends to sink as education and income levels rise. It is now understood that additional factors have sped up secularization in most first world nations. An extensive economic safety net, including universal health care, has left most westerners so secure that few feel a need to seek the aid and protection of supernatural powers and they have abandoned the churches in droves. America is the last advanced democracy to feel the full impact of secularization because the Republican alliance with conservative evangelicals that constitute a third of the nation and corporate interests has succeeded in preventing the adoption of a strong safety net.
Middle class Americans are in serious danger of financial ruin if they lose their job or health insurance and mobility from poverty to the middle class is unusually low by western standards.
But here’s the twist. The very same corporations are doing all they can to turn America into a nation of materialistic, hedonistic consumers and the public has in the main gone along with the project. The results are plain to see on the entertainment TV that is a sea of the non-traditionalist values their corporate owners favor. It was the retail chains that got rid of the Blue Laws that used to keep people in church on Sunday rather than at Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
When Bill O’Reilly claims that there is a war on traditional Christmas he is right, but when he blames the liberals he misses the mark. The mercantile interests have been converting the holidays into a profit generating shopping spree since the early 1800s. In broad terms, the anti-Darwinian religious right has had no choice but to make a deal with the socio-economically Darwinian corporate devil and it is capital that is getting the lucrative end of this bargain. The last thing American capitalism wants is an American version of Franco’s Spain that would severely impact their bottom line.
The wonderfully impractical scheme concocted by Rove and his allies was for America to somehow buck the universal western trend to leave its citizens even less secure by shifting assistance programs from the state to faith-based charities and private enterprise, thereby creating a perpetual church-going Republican majority founded on a perverse amalgam of traditional values for the masses and a cult of wealth for the upper class minority. The supposed mastermind understood his old conservative base far better than the nation. Without a solid majority, Rove had to work at the electoral margins and it’s painfully obvious that his venture could only succeed if the U.S. was becoming more Theo-conservative. But PEW and other surveys are finding that support for progressive polices, including universal medical coverage, is rising and even the evangelical-capital alliance is coming apart as corporations plead to be relieved of the bloated health costs that are produced by a free market health care system (in all other “frist” world nations the universal systems costs far less per person and produce lower rates of juvenile and adult mortality).
The prognosis for the GOP’s future is poor. This is acknowledged by Richard Lowry in “The Grim Truth” which he co-authored in the November issue of his National Review. Just how bad the right’s situation has become is exposed by the solutions to the Republican crisis offered in the article. They are platitudes of no practical value.
Contrary to the thesis that America will always swing back and forth between the liberal and conservative, Republicans cannot count on the trends eventually swinging back their way. The process of democratic secularization is so powerful that once begun it has never been significantly reversed. No strategy which the theocons devise can stop modern secular liberalism. And the inherently conservative GOP’s ability to adapt to the change is limited. It is hardly likely that the party will adopt a progressive secular doctrine and if it does so, the base will be lost, wrecking the institution. But failing to go down the progressive path threatens them with permanent minority status.
Nor are liberal and moderate theists likely to be happy with what the sociological trends are delivering. Western secularization is, if anything, harder on progressive churches than the conservative sects, which have the advantage of forming a supposedly “virtuous” resistance to the temptations of modernity. But even the evangelical churches are succumbing to materialism as a large portion of born-agains adhere to the mega-church centered Prosperity Christianity that promises its followers with wealth and comfort.
One must wonder what Rove and company were thinking when they imagined undoing long term social trends in their favor by playing the political margins. It was like trying the turn the tide with brooms. Far more savvy were John Judis and Ruy Teixeira who a few years ago looked at the pro-secular trends and predicted The Emerging Democratic Majority.
Why the Gods Are Not Winning, Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman, Edge, 4/30/07
Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look, Gregory Paul, Journal of Religion and Society, 2005,
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