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Religion-Tinged Politics

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White evangelicals put Donald Trump into the White House. They swarmed to the 2016 election in high numbers and gave an amazing 81 percent of their votes to the vulgar, obnoxious, race-baiting, gambling billionaire who favors the rich, tries to take health care away from 20 million, and brags about grabbing women by their genitals.

Although he once favored women's rights, Trump campaigned on a promise to appoint only pro-life Supreme Court justices - those who would jail women and doctors for ending pregnancies.

For his running mate, Trump chose an evangelical hero, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, known for fighting the theory of evolution, attacking gay equality and denouncing adultery. Pence notoriously signed an Indiana "religious freedom" law letting fundamentalists discriminate against gays.

Together, Trump and Pence were a dream ticket for conservative Christians - which shows the falsity and hypocrisy of religion. Jesus said to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the suffering, embrace the poor - all the humane facets of the liberal "safety net." But today's U.S. fundamentalists vote for the GOP, which tries to slash the safety net to give tax breaks to the rich. They contradict the teachings of Jesus - but few seem to notice.

Of course, other factors besides religion also swayed the 2016 presidential race, such as economic despair among less-educated blue-collar whites. But it's abundantly clear: without strong born-again backing, Trump and Pence would have lost "bigly."

However, there's hope that the 2016 travesty may be a final spasm for America's "religious right" politics. The United States is creeping steadily toward a religion-free culture. Puritanical church power over the nation keeps weakening, decade after decade. I hope the retreat continues.

I grew up in Appalachia's Bible Belt, where fundamentalist taboos ruled politics and daily life. Censorship, blue Sabbath laws, mandatory school prayer, "dry" laws and other strictures prevailed. But Bible Belt thou-shalt-nots of my youth slowly slipped away - thanks to the sexual revolution, Supreme Court rulings and cultural evolution. Church taboos slowly evaporated.

A secular surge swept Europe after World War II. Church attendance plummeted. Nations that had spent centuries killing people over religion - in Crusades, Inquisitions, witch-hunts, pogroms, Reformation wars, persecutions, holy wars and massacres - decided that religion was inconsequential.

Europe's transformation spread to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other advanced democracies.

At first it seemed that America was an exception, a place where religion remained strong. But, in recent decades, America rapidly caught up with the Western world. Religion lost its grip on the country.

Church decline started in the 1960s when tall-steeple mainline denominations began losing members, then the erosion spread to evangelicals and Catholics.

The Southern Baptist Church has lost 1 million members in the past decade. And so many white followers left Catholicism that one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

The number of Americans who say their faith is "none" soared remarkably since 1990. Now "nones" are America's largest group, around one-third of the adult population - outnumbering Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent).

Barack Obama was the first president to welcome skeptic groups to the White House and recognize "those who have no religion" as equal citizens.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)
 

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