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Why the Republicans and Their Religious Base Are in a Lot More Trouble Than They Realize

By       Message Gregory Paul       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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Once upon a time the great Republican operative Karl Rove had a political dream. Using George Bush Jr. as his vessel, he was going to play the political margins to establish a conservative majority that would perpetually dominate the American body politic the way liberal Democrats had from FDR to Carter. The fundamental core of this grand project would be the religious right, politically allied with the corporate interests under the umbrella of the GOP. Because these elements do not make up a majority of the population, enough of the center would have to be convinced to initially go along with the scheme with the “compassionate conservatism” that stemmed from Bush’s seemingly moderate governance of Texas, combined with the hard ball election tactics developed by Nixon and perfected by Lee Atwater and himself to demonize the opposition. The traditional values of the fast growing Hispanic vote would make them natural members of a Republican Party made Latino- friendly by the minority savvy Bush. Once in the White House, and with a disciplined hard right GOP controlling Congress, an aggressive legislative agenda and a Supreme Court packed with conservative judges would radically alter the relationship between government and the private sector in favor of the latter. The resulting “ownership society” would involve so many ordinary Americans in home ownership and stock investments – including a privatized social security system -- that a solid majority would become socioeconomic conservatives. They would attend the Prosperity Christianity promoting megachurches each Sunday morning, before heading for the box stores to round up their weekly consumer activities that would drive a perpetually prospering economy boosted into the stratosphere by the wizardry of financial gurus let loose to create fantastic wealth by the purging of the liberty limiting regulations established in the Roosevelt era. The few American’s left behind would be taken care of by efficient church-based charities rather than an inept governmental safety net. And the Godly Republicans would sweep out the corruption that contaminated Washington under the secular Democrats, while shrinking the government as the New Deal was finally killed off. Also at long last driven extinct would be the counterculture that had evolved in the despised 60s, replaced by a mainstream culture of faith-based virtue and honor where abortion would be banned and gays returned to the closet.  

How could such a clever plan go wrong?    

It was a pipe dream from the get-go, one doomed from the start by powerful cultural, political, economic, religious and demographic forces and trends that have been and will remake the nation into a more secular, progressive and Democratic friendly country pretty much the opposite of the one Karl was trying to manipulate into existence. That the Republican scheme was ever taken seriously was only because a series of accidents made it seem credible, and obscured the sociological reality that America has been and is evolving towards a less exceptional status that will make it more like the rest of the west. The Rove plan barely survived even its first big test in the 2000 election only because Bush II lucked out; Gore ran a sub par campaign by failing to tie his candidacy to the Clinton prosperity, and after he still managed to win the popular vote the GOP was handed Florida by Republican judicial fiat. The plan was saved again when Bin Laden frightened the nation into the seemingly secure arms of the Republican Party. 9/11 -- and encouraged the right to think that Americans would respond to extremist Islam by flocking to the conservative Christian churches. Had Gore done just a little better the Rove project would have been aborted back at the turn of the century. Because Gore slipped up we had to wait the 2006 and especially the 2008 elections to view the wreckage of Rove’s hopes in the wake of deep set, long-term national developments that are overwhelming any schemes to take the country elsewhere.  

In contrast to the Bush presidency, the Obama victory was not an electoral or geopolitical accident. Commonly held opinions that the campaigns’ differing levels of competence, and/or the economic crisis, were critical to making an urban liberal from Chicago of mixed race with a funny name and a complicated religious history President are exaggerated. The chance that any Republican was going to win was very low (the Abramowitz system that has used sociopolitical factors to correctly predict almost all the election results in recent decades had this one statistically pegged months before it occurred). The deeper historical forces that are creating the Amazing Shrinking Republican Party as they form what looks like a Permanent Democratic Majority are being uncovered by advanced sociological science that emerges from looking at what the statistics and the culture are telling us, rather than what ideology leads some to imagine. Had the “Boy Genius” Rove been objective enough to understood the information he would have realized that all his efforts would be for naught. Same for McCain who could have not picked a worse year to run as a Repub.  

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Now, there is an elephant in the room that few wish to acknowledge. To an extant that remains seriously under appreciated it is religion, or more explicitly the growing lack of it, is playing a role in the remaking of America that cannot be exaggerated. The still widespread notion that the USA remains a strongly devout and churchly nation was fed by all the God talk from Obama and other Dems understandably spooked by past electoral losses fed. The notion is being further encouraged by conservative elements such as the conservative Baylor University religious survey group that is egregiously manipulating the abundant data that shows otherwise. It is true that America is the most religious western democracy, but that is not saying all that much. Take the still commonly made claim that 90% of Americans believe in God. Forget it. The same applies to absurd declarations that nonbelievers have been stuck at just a few percent of the population since the world wars. A 2008 PEW poll found that only half of Americans have no doubt a personal God exists. PEW also calculates that America is only half as religious as some 2nd and 3rd world countries. In the 1950s less than1.5%, equal to just two million, told Gallup that there is no God, over 98% said yes there is (exactly how many back then had no doubt a personal god exists is not known, very it probably was well above current levels). Gallup found that three quarters of the population belonged to a church. Those days of mass piety are long gone. Two Harris polls carefully designed to overcome American’s reluctance to admit they are nonreligious (because most Americans are more bigoted towards atheists than to gays), and to parallel propensity to exaggerate their religiosity, found that a fifth qualify as atheists and agnostics. That is some 60 million nonbelievers, rivaling Catholics and conservative evangelicals respectively in numbers, and dwarfing Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. The latter are proud to have increased from two to 6 million since the 1950s (mainly via rapid reproduction), the irreligious grew as much as tenfold faster (mainly by conversion, atheists et al. not being fast breeders). The rise of the nonreligious has surged, doubling in numbers in the last decade and a half. It follows that those who accept evolutionary science are edging up.            

The growth of the nonbelievers has come at the expense of popular faith. Church membership has steadily declined down to 60%, if anything the drop accelerated after 9/11. Studies intended to find out what Americans really -- rather than tell pollsters -- do on a typical Sunday morning find that just a quarter or less are in church. What about those fast growing megachurches? There are still only 1300 of them, drawing in four million most Sundays, a mere few percent of the population. Christians which once made up almost all the nation are down to three quarters and would be even lower if not for the influx of Hispanics that are keeping the Catholics from shrinking, while Protestants have sunk to minority status for the first time since Jamestown was founded.  For decades the “mainline” churches have been taking it on the demographic chin while the theocon sects gained power (due more to a rise in activism rather than actual numbers), but now the latter are sharing in the decline. According to Gallup Bible literalists have sunk spectacularly from four in ten to less than a third over thirty years – contradicting the impression of a numerically resurgent religious right -- and if the steady trends continue literalists should be matched and then outnumbered by the rising number of Bible skeptics in a decade or two. A report from the bastion of theoconservatism, the Southern Baptist Church, laments that evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration” because they are baptizing new members at the same absolute number they did fifty years ago when the population was half its current size. The proportion of Americans who are SBs are declining as the number of baptisms drops on a yearly basis, especially among youth. That brings us to the feminization of the churches as men become increasingly reluctant to spend their limited time sitting in the pews. This is a demographic disaster for religion because most children pick up their religion or nonreligion from their fathers, and a given generation retains its level of religiosity through life. Young Americans are the least theistic generation in the nation’s history.  

Some regions of the USA, such as the northeast and the west coast, are already as nonreligious as some secularized western nations. As the elections are showing, once red, theoconservative states are turning a more secular purple and even blue. To the degree that a black Democrat won the former capital state of the Confederacy, Virginia, as well as North Carolina. The Democrats are no longer the party of just the coasts, they are the true majority party that not only dominates the coasts and urban areas where the bulk of the population dwells, but growing sections of the interior and the suburbs as well.

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It is not just the stats, it’s the culture too. Theocons used to own the once square mainstream culture that they kept in line with the oppressive Comstock laws, followed by the stifling Hayes Code that once ruled Hollywood. The minority that is the religious right has since been driven into a large but separate parallel culture as the post World War II corporate project to transform Godly Americans into hip, materialistic, hedonistic, sex, sports and celebrity obsessed consumers has succeeded spectacularly, creating the most irreligious popular culture in the nation’s history. Unable to attract sufficient ratings, not a single conservative Christian themed entertainment program is found on the commercial broadcast and cable networks, where the hits include the likes of the bawdy Desperate Housewives and the salacious Grey’s Anatomy on Disney’s ABC. Nor is Reality-TV faith friendly. The Bush FCC had to go to the Supreme Court to try to keep the networks from using the vulgarities now common in popular speech. Gays have become so popular that the right has actually had to mount the effort to ban same-sex marriage that was inconceivable less than a generation ago, and the lead spokesperson for American Express is the country’s best known lesbian pagan, Ellen Degeneres.


To get a sense of the degree to which the social right has lost the Culture War consider that Republican presidential candidate John McCain appeared on Ellen’s talk show shortly before Laura and Jeana Bush appeared to promote the latter’s book. McCain and Palin spared time from their hectic campaign schedules to appear on the classic product of the liberal counter culture, Saturday Night Live, as did a potential leader of the Republican right, Michael Huckabee. SNL, which goes out of its way to push the boundaries of network lewdness, would not exist if social traditionalism still held sway over the mainstream culture. And look at the stream of conservatives who appear on the profanity laced den of irreligious liberalism, Real Time with Bill Maher. They have to if they want to get their message out in a society where the hip and exciting popular culture is the mainstream, and the traditionalist culture will always be square and dull.

More evidence of the traditionalist’s loss of the culture. The voters of one of the reddest states, South Dakota, firmly slapped down a referendum to make almost all abortions illegal, and the now purple Coloradians had even less patience with another anti-abortion measure. When the divorce boom began among the WW II generation in the mid 1960s the theocons vehemently denounced the growing failure to adhere to Biblical doctrine. Then the divorcee Ronald Reagan became the darling of the right, the man they nominated for the White House in 2008 was an adulterous divorcee, born-agains are in the top bracket of divorce rates, and Christian America has higher levels of divorce among married couples than all but one of the secular western nations. Even though nonmarried sex is another sin against the creator, the right embraced Palin’s pregnant daughter, almost all virginity pledges that a few million evangelical teens have taken are broken, and the religious US has uniquely high rates of teen pregnancy, as well as abortion and STD infections among 1st world nations. Or take the sex symbol of the hard right, Ann Coulter, who well into her forties has yet to marry, and on Rivera Live proclaimed “Let’s say I go out every night. I meet a guy and have sex with him. Good for me. I’m not married.” She agrees with the two thirds of Americans think nonadulterous sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable, and the well over nine in ten engage in it. Far from being over, the sexual revolution continues to defeat the right.  

Events often seen as evidence of the power of the theocons are actually signs of their distress. Matters have become so bad for the cultural traditionalists that right wing Protestants and Catholics who would prefer to denounce each others’ heresies have had to join forces to battle the overwhelming tide of the secular popular culture. It is true that American conservatism remains powerful, more so than in any other western nation. It is not going away tomorrow. And the Democrats remain much weaker than the good old days. Obama did not win by a popular landslide, his party does not have the 60 plus supermajority they once enjoyed in the Senate. Even so, as George Will observes, the McCain defeat was not the conservative revitalizing event that was the even bigger Goldwater loss. Why? Because the sociological evidence shows that the conservative movement is a spent force that has peaked and is on the way down. Be especially careful about the surveys that indicate that many more Yanks still identify as conservatives than as liberals. PEW megasurvey analysis show that the population is actually becoming increasingly pro-government, secular and socially tolerant. This means the definition of conservative is changing as many who claim to be one edge towards more progressive opinions and policies. This has already happened in other western nations where the conservatives – they rarely dare oppose universal health care for example -- are moderates by American standards.


Although still a small minority, nonbelievers are easily the fastest growing segment of the population. The rise of liberalism is more incremental, but they already make up a very large and growing minority that when allied with the often sympathetic moderates constitute the great majority. Basically, America is undergoing a delayed version of the sociopolitically progressive secularization that has already occurred in all other advanced democracies. To a certain extent this is because the conservative movement has always contained the seeds of its own destruction, and these seeds are sprouting.

Consider the alliance of the religious and economic right. It has been around so long now -- since theocon elitists such as Bill Buckley promoted its formation after WW II -- that it seems as natural and as American as apple pie; and by collaborating both minorities enjoy political power that they would otherwise not possess. But there is a very dark side for conservative Christianity in their deal with the corporate devil. Prior to WW II conservative Christian leaders such as the great Democratic populist and creationist William Jennings Bryan understood that most conservative capitalists are libertarians rather than traditionalists. It is not in the interest of profits driven capital to work towards a nation of religious devotion whose citizens direct much of their time and resources to the churches, but to transform the populace into those shop til they drop, credit dependent consumers who put priority into the material over the spiritual. This is literally true. One reason the churches are losing their flocks is because the Blue Laws that once boosted church attendance were largely eliminated at the behest of the retailers. The latter logically prefer the masses be in their stores each Sunday helping boost the bottom-line. One estimate calculates that the repeal of Blue Laws has suppressed weekly church attendance by ten million -- you can see a lot of those folks’ cars in the parking lots of Wal-Mart and Home-Depo on many Sunday mornings. Corporate heads so pious that they refuse to open their stores on the Sabbath are sufficiently scarce that the example of the Chick-fil-A chain was a trivia question on Cash Cab. More typical is the conservative Coors family that uses hot blond twins to advertise its light beer that helps fuel college binge drinking. The exemplar of conservative corporate gaming the alliance to the advantage of capital is Republican Rupert Murdoch whose FoxNews regularly denounces the liberalization of the media that his Fox entertainment complex has been a leading contributor to with the lewd Married With Children, the astonishingly irreligious The Simpsons, and the hypergraphic hit House whose lead character is a proudly cranky atheist. Which commercial network took the lead in challenging the Bush FCC’s attempt to control broadcast vulgarity all the way to the Supreme Court? Fox.   Far from helping their putative religious allies eliminate the 1960s counterculture, the corporations have succeeded in capturing it and turning it to their own fiduciary purposes, and the public has largely gone along. The resulting popular corporate consumer culture is the most potent force for societal secularization in modern America. Marx would be shocked, Bryan would not.

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There is very little that the churches -- whose billion dollars budgets are dwarfed by the multi-trillion consumer driven economy -- can do to halt much less reverse this immensely effective force for destroying traditional values and mores.  To see how peculiar the theocon-corporate alliance is, reflect upon the irony that the main opponents of Darwinian science, Christian conservatives, have embraced socioeconomic Darwinism! This has worked to the theocons’ advantage well enough that the old guard of conservative Christian leaders have resisted broadening the evangelical cause beyond key wedge issues including supporting low taxes and free markets to lefty notions of battling poverty and saving the environment. As described in the seminal sociological study Sacred and Secular by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in 2004, the high level of middle class economic insecurity that results from high levels of income inequality, job insecurity, and the absence of universal health care is the most effective force for maximizing the religiosity of a 1st world nation where most other factors favor irreligion. Obama was not far off when he made his comment about the bitterness and the religiosity of the American working class, neither of which applies to the same extent in all other western democracies where universal medical coverage and job security have been the key factors in subduing religiosity to the point that large majorities are atheists and agnostics in some of these nations.  

But the theocon coalition with free wheeling capital has predictably blown up in their faces. Thomas Frank has detailed the Republican project to get rid of much government as possible by wrecking it. The problem with this anti-government strategy is that it cannot help but backfire. Katrina was just one, albeit spectacular, example. The Republican lead effort to deregulate finance converted investing into a high risk form of gambling, for instance, was bound to crash as the biggest of the series of speculative bubbles that emerged since the Reagan years inevitably burst. Did many Dems join in on the greedfest? You bet, but the idea of dismantling the FDR style set of regulations was not theirs, it was a premiere Republican project and would never have happened on such a catastrophic scale had the Democrats remained in charge. What this means is that the financial and economic explosion that just ripped the last desperate hopes of the Republicans to shreds was no accident, it was a nuclear scale landmine just waiting to devastate mass conservatism one way or another, some time or another. The once vaunted ‘ownership society’ now seems scary to most Americans.  

Another way the religious and political right could not help setting themselves up for failure stems from the promise they had to make to America during their years in the political wilderness. They assured the nation that if they would at long last were put in control of the White House and Congress that as moral followers of the true God they would deliver the honest governance that the corrupt, pork loving secular Democrats could not provide. This promise was of course self delusional -- Republicans suffer from the same core flaw that afflicts Democrats, they are human beings. Thoughtful theists have always warned against mixing religion and politics because of the corrupting influence of the secular world. The bulk of the religious right threw this caution to the winds because the merger of the counterculture with the consumer culture posed such a dangerous threat to traditionalism that they did not see an alternative. The results were predictable -- the extraordinary level of Republican corruption that compelled the devout Palin to lie that she opposed the bridge to nowhere managed to match if not exceed Democratic norms.

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Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work (more...)

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