Steve Benen brought my attention to a report by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute. What it found was that there is a growing Christian Left movement. Not surprisingly, it is younger and more diverse compared to the old white Christian Right movement. A Christian Left movement would be most welcome, but I’m not as hopeful as Benen seems to be.
The big problem is the two sex issues: abortion and homosexuality. These are what give the Christian Right 99% of its vitality. It is all identity politics too. Those people who have casual sex are not good Christians like we. As I’ve argued in the past, there is nothing particularly Christian against abortion. There is nothing in the Bible, and the arguments against it are detailed and not particularly compelling. At least the Old Testament is against homosexuality. And before someone says anything, yes, abortion really has been around that long.
There are all kinds of things that Christians could have elevated to sacred status in terms of their politics. Just looking at the New Testament, one would predict that Christians would focus on eliminating poverty. But they don’t. And I think it all comes down to a small minded fear of sex and hatred of women. In that way, things do look better. I don’t see younger Christians getting older and suddenly developing all of the sexual hangups of their parents. Just the same, I don’t see them forming a strong political movement. After all, pretty much all modern religions believe in some form of life after death. Given that, why care about the suffering of others, especially when they are the other?
Benen also mentioned another fact that I thought was very interesting. Roughly 51% of Americans think that the United States Constitution set up “a Christian nation.” This is good news, because it used to be higher. This bit of ignorance ought to cause outrage on the right as an indication of our schools’ complete failure to educate children about our country. But they won’t. And there is a very good reason why people manage to go around thinking something so wrong. If any school teacher mentioned that the Constitution was created specifically to exclude God from it, he would be pilloried by conservatives.
The question is, are these polls believable? Almost 40% of Americans say they go to church each week. But research of actual attendance found that only 20% actually attend church each week. I think to the vast majority of Americans, saying that they “believe in God” or are “religious” is just another way of saying that they are good people. A self-proclaimed Christian once told me that he didn’t believe that Jesus was the savior. That struck me as particularly American. Christians like to complain that Christ has been removed from Christmas; I would say that Christ has been removed from Christianity.
For most Christians, it is just like a club. And they believe what they believe because that’s what people in the club believe. There is very little of the sacred in modern American Christianity. I know this from personal experience. I talk to Christians all the time and the one who knows anything about the real basis of their religion is as rare as a wheat penny. And so in order to signal tribal loyalty, they grab on to anti-choice and anti-gay hysteria. What will these younger, liberal Christians grab onto? If they stay in the church, I’m not at all certain they won’t develop similar cultural signaling mechanisms. In general, being a member of a church makes a person more suspicious of outsiders. And that leads to the same old in and out group politics that has poisoned the older generation of Christians.
There is, of course, a more pleasant take on all of this. The younger generations could be far more open to real spiritual thinking—to reaching out to the sacred. But in my experience, that kind of thinking leads a person to what might as well be secular. There is no sense of “us and them” when there is no dogma. All the major religions are little more than dogma. So my hope is not that there will be a Christian Left movement. It is more that the young would demand an expansive religion that speaks to our modern needs. None of the Abrahamic religions come close to qualifying. And I fear they will always lead to exclusionary (that is, conservative) politics.