Has progressive secularism gone too far in the United States? Have Democrats anti-religious attitude created an electoral monster?

By Spiridon Ion Cepleanu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am a secular and I am a progressive. I think beginning with the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980, through the Newt Gingrich years in the 1990’s when Christian Conservatives effectively seized control of the GOP through the George W. Bush Presidency, where an adherence to religion and religious rhetoric dominated the administration’s discourse that religion had too much of a role in American public life and policy making. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, the scaling back of environmental regulations, Middle Eastern wars, social policy and even economic policies were largely dictated by the alliance between the White House and religious leaders.

Before the 2006 midterm elections, religious leaders had a firm grip on policy making in the United States. However, since November 2006, the grip religious leaders have actually had on this country has slipped. They’ve lost the battle on LGBT issues, discussion of religion in the public square, the imposition of religion and prayer on the public school system and by-and-large outside of Florida on the battle to allow public money to flow into parochial religious institutions. Secularism is the dominant ideology in the United States today even among mainstream conservatives unlike 12, 15, 20 or 25 years ago. Yet, today the left is pushing potentially too far on these issues.

Historically, just about every reaction has an equal or stronger opposite (counter) reaction. The emergence of Christian Conservatism was by and large a reaction to the cultural wars of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Progressive secularism which rose as a reaction to the heady days of the Christian Right now has arguably overwhelmed American society and media, driving any person of faith away from progressive ideals which have nothing to do with religion or faith and undermining the opportunity for progressive candidates to win over people of faith in elections.

A contempt for religion and people of faith seems to now dominate the left, the media and Hollywood. This attitude particularly at a time when people are putting themselves in silos, using social media and watching MSNBC or CNN not only as primary news sources rather than seeing them as supplementary ones, but as opinion and ideology forming entities than as simply a news source.

We hear consistently that America was founded on religious liberty – this is correct. It was also created, manufactured, nurtured and grown by people of faith. Two of the most progressive movements in our nation’s history were tied directly to religion – Abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement.

The puritan roots of settlements in New England helped create a second reformation in the English-speaking world, and one that helped plant the seeds for revolution that moved Britain forward. Make no mistake about it, Oliver Cromwell could have easily been in the American Colonies in the 1640’s, and had he been here, who knows how history would have played out. Cromwell’s movement impacted the American Colonies profoundly as the English Civil War had its American elements. What grew out of that era was an even greater feeling that the colonies respected religious liberty and that the American colonies were a place for the persecuted and anti-royalists to escape to. In time as we know this created an evangelical fervor second-to-none globally.

While I have long argued the American Revolution has strong anti-Catholic undertones, the religious fervor that created the elements for at least in theory a radicalized and progressive revolutionary movement. Out of that movement came a spirit of idealism and fervor that crafted a nation – an experiment in democratic and republican government, a Federal system unlike any other in the history of civilization. Economic considerations certainly played a major role, increasing the tensions. The colonists also felt trapped, between heavily fortified British East Florida and Quebec with its French Catholic population. But colonists in 1775, before declaring independence felt a kind with French Huguenots in Quebec and invaded Canada hoping to win them over to the rebellion. They almost succeeded. The death of General Richard Montgomery on New Year’s Eve 1775 at the Battle of Quebec and perhaps the tactical errors of Benedict Arnold cost the Americans a chance to control the whole continent.

America’s Revolution inspired arguably the most significant event in world history – the French Revolution. Of course the France’s Revolution was strongly anti-Catholic as well, more overtly than that of the thirteen colonies. But France had ever reason to push that – the Catholic Church had a special status in Bourbon France, and in fact at various times controlled the state. France’s secular experiment and republican governments changed the face of global politics. As republican ideas were spread through Europe first through the revolutionary armies but then via Napoleon (who history, largely written by the British have tried to unfairly equate with Hitler), the growth of self-determination as an idea grew.

The impact of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shaped negative views of Christianity beginning in the late 1700’s (including myself). It’s worth noting a member of Parliament, Gibbon was opposed to the independence of the American colonies and wanted swifter and stronger prosecution of the war. Gibbon’s narrative, which states Christianity played a major role in the collapse of the Roman state and led to a decline in civilization from the heights of Rome to the depths of the Barbarian-led Dark Ages is  subjective yet from my eyes accurate. But those who cite Gibbon as a reason why the United States with similar global overreach to Rome aren’t being realistic. Christianity usurped the Roman state, leading to a decline in governing capacity and a rejection of engineering, science and common sense. Since 2006, it’s been on a pretty rapid decline in terms of it’s impact on the American state, even in the era of Trump.

Throughout American history, Catholics have been discriminated against in a largely protestant country. As noted above, I have long believed the American Revolution had anti-Catholic undertones, something often downplayed by historians on this side of the Atlantic for whatever reason. In 1928, when the Democrats nominated Al Smith, the first ever major party nominee that was a Catholic, he lost several southern states because of his religion – Florida among them. At the time, Democrats could count on a solid south, as even the 1924 election, the low point historically for the party saw nominee John W. Davis sweep the south, while Republican nominee Calvin Coolidge, an arch-conservative battled Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin who broke away from the party due to Coolidge’s conservatism and Davis’ unwillingness to run to the left. La Follette was running as a left-leaning economics-based third party candidate and was competitive in most of the northern states, though he only won his home state of Wisconsin in the election.  This came during the prohibition era when Catholics and Protestants were generally on different sides of the cultural divide as they were throughout much of American history.

In 1960, anti-Catholicism was still alive and well and almost cost John F. Kennedy the election. Theodore White’s epic The Making of the President 1960, details how difficult even at the relatively recent date it was for a Catholic to overcome inherent prejudice.

Since the beginning of the republic, Catholics and Protestants have behaved differently, thought differently and in general been in different political parties. Yet somehow, in the 2000’s and 2010’s the Democratic Party, the traditional home of American Catholics has united non-Hispanic Catholics and non-African-American Protestants of all denominations and against them. Donald Trump’s election owes itself to excessive secularization of the Democratic Party – not merely believing in separation of church and state or a secular republic, but the contempt and eradication of religion, and seemingly an overturning of American traditions and history.

Perhaps we on the left have been too hostile to religion because of the Bush legacy? The Bush family connections to oil sheikhs in the Middle East which has ushered in a generation of constant warfare in the region involving American troops is connected to religious roots and a shared vision of nation-states as Petrocracies, has religious roots but are in reality economic plays by oil men. Militarism is a fundamental aspect of petroleum-fueled nations where the need to create constant pressure points and warfare is a means to keep the ruling class in power. But the use of religious rhetoric to justify these economic means turned many on the left permanently against religion. The conservative war on science owes itself also largely to religion and religious rhetoric. But even on this, despite the election of Trump, the right is squarely on the defensive.

From an electoral standpoint, it’s becoming more and more difficult to elect candidates outside dark blue areas if religion is completely marginalized and people of faith are turned off. Whether many on the left like it or not, most Americans still self identity as Christian in some form or another, and the churchgoing population while certainly down (especially when compared to the era of religious domination) is still much higher than in many western nations.

Democrats are quite possibly on the brink of no longer being a national party, because of the attitude toward people of faith. Outside of big cities and heavily urbanized elections the party’s struggles in 2016 were its greatest up and down the ballot since the 1952 election when a popular Dwight Eisenhower topped the GOP ticket and the unpopularity of the outgoing Truman Administration fueled a wave. While analysts have focused on Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania for their decisive nature in the election, other signs were ominous and consistent for the Democrats. Should the Democrats really want to push to regain the House of Representatives in 2018 they need to heed these warnings and change the party’s perception.

Even in traditionally Democratic Rhode Island and Minnesota the party’s margin of victory became worrying low relative to historic numbers. Minnesota last went Republican in 1972 (when it was still George McGovern’s third best state) and Rhode Island last went for the GOP in 1984 (when it was one of Walter Mondale’s best states still). Similarly, states such as Maine which splits its electoral votes are now suddenly in play. Ohio’s decisive swing towards Trump from three point Obama win in 2012 to eight point Trump win four years later hasn’t been covered the way you’d necessarily expect. Rhode Island is an excessively Catholic state and while its traditional ties to the Democrats have meant it rarely has gone to a Republican candidate in the last hundred years (except in electoral landslides) the margins are going in the other direction from many of the elite coastal blue states.

This past cycle, Iowa a state that gave Michael Dukakis a ten point victory in 1988 and one of the few states where President Obama carried the majority of the WHITE vote twice, gave Donald Trump a close to ten point victory.

While the South remains a distinct cultural region, the rural and small-town Midwest has more in common with the South than with the liberal  big cities of the Northeast or Pacific Coast, thanks in large measure to being religious. Historically while the South elected Democrats and the rural Midwest elected Conservative Republicans, the members of Congress from the two regions teamed up to form a Conservative Coalition to block initiatives by President’s Roosevelt and Truman to expand liberalism at all levels. The apex of this coalition came when they overrode President Truman’s veto on the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law which legalized right-to-work and weakened labor’s political influence permanently. The veto override of Truman ended America’s golden age of liberalism. The coalition broke apart on Civil Rights, when after years of voting with the South, the Midwest was courted in 1957 by Vice President Richard Nixon and in 1964 by  President Lyndon Johnson to break the back of the south’s racially-motivated filibusterers. The Midwest began to drift back toward the Democrats after the impact of GOP economic policies became apparent in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Unions and the right to unionize differentiated the Midwest from the South but today’s Democratic Party and millennial idealist doesn’t per se see this nuance.Many simply see rural and small town America as a monolith of “deplorable” voters influenced by radicalized religion and racism.

Now that the Democrats downplay real lunch plate economics in favor of a tone that emphasizes race and ethnicity in almost every discussion including on the economy, the Midwest is now voting on cultural issues more and more – and on cultural issues it lines up with the now GOP-dominated south. This has helped to unite rural Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians with suburban Catholics in a new Republican electoral coalition which they didn’t create without help from the Democrats.

Lost in much of the analysis in the breakdown of the Democrats fall outside of urban areas in the state is the collapse of the party’s competitiveness among catholic voters- particularly non-Hispanic catholic voters over the past eight years. Per exit polling data Democrats have gone from Barack Obama winning the overall catholic vote statewide in 2008 to losing it by five points in 2012 to Hillary Clinton  losing it by ten points in 2016. When you split off Hispanic Catholics, Mitt Romney got 62% of Catholic vote in 2012 and Donald Trump about 70% in 2016. Non-Hispanic Catholics in Florida and nationally are voting more and more like white protestants and that should scare every leader in the Democratic Party.

For years, the Catholic vote represented a core constituency for Democrats here in Florida, in the industrial Midwest and also in the urban centers of the Northeast. The differences between white catholic voters and white protestant voters were stark as I tried to illustrate above in a digest form of a 200-plus year history of differences, but now the two constituencies are voting more and more like one another.

Seeing the collapse of the non-Hispanic Catholic vote for Democrats at the top-of-the-ticket helps explain why the party is on the run in medium-sized counties like Pasco, Marion and Volusia which have a fair amount of white catholic voters particularly Midwestern and Northeastern transplants. These counties are now voting much like parts of non-urban Ohio and Michigan as well as upstate New York. Those areas all share a Republican heritage, but the medium-sized counties of Central and North Central Florida do not share that Republican heritage, but have essentially assumed it over the course of the last six years.

Per the Pew Research Center, the Catholic vote declined 5% nationally for Hillary Clinton in 2016 from President Obama’s 2012 level and nine percent from 2008.

While secularism is a core tenet of the American republic, Democrats have to make appeals to religious voters – if not based on faith on the types of economic issues that appeal to Catholics, long the core of the national Democratic coalition. Secularism and secular progressiveness do not need to mean a stamping out of all religion or a disrespect for religious voters or American history.  If the Democrats and left continue to show such an utter contempt for religion, any bump in electoral fortunes due to Trump’s ineptitude will be short lived and a long-term realignment  in the GOP’s favor might occur, especially when they begin peeling off minority voters who are religious, which might be an inevitability once Trump leaves the scene if the left doesn’t reshape it’s messaging and attitudes.

 

4 comments

  1. Steven Ellman · · Reply

    Standing up for gay rights and women’s rights
    shows “utter contempt for religion”? Give me a break.

  2. It is time for a People’s Party. The faith of progressives is based on democratic reason the god both established but decaying parties have forsaken. Bernie 2020.

  3. I posted a comment, a long one. Is it lost already?

    1. Posting for the 3rd time:
      I think you are behind the times. I think the peak of secularism has past and now all major parties give lip service to religion. The splitting off of anti-feminist, anti-choice voters is the doing of the Koch Brothers and other well-heeled, fully “oiled” political operatives cynically using “baby-killing” rhetoric to control their voters. The people who control the republican party are neither religious nor honest. They are using “Christian” rhetoric to divide the electorate, and we are ineffective at countering it. NONE of this has anything to do with a genuine belief in God. Believers are being used, and feminists are not able to get reasonable coverage, or even equal time, in male-dominated news organizations.

      My fundamentalist Democratic friends say this country was founded on Christian beliefs, which is what their preachers say. They are not feminist, and the abortion issue makes them nervous. Yet they are willing to insist that we, as Democrats, stand for Choice, not abortion. We, as Democrats, need to reach the heads of religious organizations and remind them of the First Amendment.

      I agree that economic issues need to be central, and overriding. We have the opportunity to expose the GOP for who they are, LIARS who care only for their own profits, and their friends’ profits. An honest economic stance is necessary. What part of ‘Fight for $15’ is not economic? What part of Educational Opportunity for All, what part of ‘Medicare for All’ is not economic? What part of the Safety Net is not economic? Okay, some of it is health-related. But mostly, economic, the attempt to guarantee that a family will not end up homeless. Reproductive Choice is central to women who want to succeed economically.

      It is the GOP that have been labeling us anti-religion for decades, while we have slowly been reclaiming religion, while maintaining allegiance to science. Those Dems who go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple proclaim it frequently. Especially out in the country, but everywhere.

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