The story of contemporary American history is intricately tied to the rapid secularization of a society that traditionally understood itself in explicitly Biblical terms. Once a devoutly Christian nation – the progeny of the millennialist aspirations of Puritans fleeing religious persecution in the Old World – the American republic has become decidedly more agnostic about its spiritual heritage in recent decades. This nationwide secularization has conventionally been thought of as something of a partisan issue: The country’s leftward-moving political shift and its abandonment of traditional religion are often regarded as two related phenomena within a series of larger demographic, sociopolitical and structural changes to the nature of American society itself. Americans, it seems, are becoming increasingly progressive in their political outlook, more cosmopolitan in their disposition towards the world at large, and decisively less interested in traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on the nature of mortal existence and eternity as a result.
Throughout all of these recent developments, the American Right has been considered the natural home for the remaining traditionalist Christians and Jews scattered throughout American society. The so-called “religious Right” is the last stronghold of those who continue to resist the secularizing forces that have been so effective in removing religion from the public square and ostracizing its adherents. To be sure, the American conservative movement contains a variety of political sensibilities, not all of which are religiously informed – we need not re-litigate the most recent bout of animosities between its libertarian and traditionalist factions – but the Right has been seen by most religious traditionalists as the more hospitable of the two partisan dispositions for decades. This has only solidified in recent years, as the Democratic Party has embraced progressive secularism in its entirety whilst the GOP has become increasingly influenced by a dialectical relationship with the religious conservatives in its base, growing more sympathetic to their interests as religious voters became a solidified contingent of the Republican coalition.
The religious Right wields significant power in our national politics, although their influence continues to wane as a direct result of the country’s sweeping agnosticization. This influence has garnered suspicion and animosity from various corners of the American body politic; traditionally, the loudest critics of the religious Right were self-styled liberal rationalists like the New Atheists, a particularly influential collection of militantly anti-theistic public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. These rationalists championed the preeminence of science and reason as chief among the methods for solving core philosophical and sociopolitical issues, and lamented the fact that religiously-informed governance drew its inspiration from primitive superstitions and an undue reverence for tradition rather than from logic and rational deduction. Religion, for the New Atheists, was the manifestation of pre-Enlightenment ignorance, rife with prejudice stemming from a hopelessly antiquated worldview. If only the religiously devout stopped imposing their draconian theistic intolerance on the rest of us, these enlightened rationalists complained, we could finally progress towards a more enlightened and just society.
More recently, the introduction of post-modern theories of “social justice” presents a new, unprecedented challenge to religious traditionalists in America. Thinkers of the New Left such as Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault and Franz Fanon have all introduced various unique attacks on institutionalized religious belief. These new criticisms are altogether separate from, and sometimes even opposed to, those of the rationalistic New Atheists; in fact, as a result of their discomfort with the latent illiberal proclivities of the philosophical dernier cri, thinkers like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have become anathema on the Left, sacrificing the coveted good standing they previously enjoyed amongst progressive intelligentsia. These newly ascendant philosophies of decolonization, intersectionality and neo-Marxist cultural critique are profound departures from the Enlightenment liberalism of Hitchens and Harris, but all are unified in their mistrust of religious institutions. Gramsci famously spoke of a “long march through the institutions” as a necessary precursor to revolution; for the new radicals, liberation from the suffocative influence of the Church is a political imperative.
Though they are increasingly finding themselves at odds with one another, these various anti-theistic forces in American society have been collectively engaged in a bitter battle with the remaining religious contingency of the broader culture for decades. For years, those seeking to excise religiosity from American public life were fiercely critical of what they saw as the theocratic aspirations of the religious Right, seeing its persistent existence as an insufferable barrier to their political aspirations.
But yet – what would an American conservatism stripped of its Judeo-Christian roots look like? And would progressives really find it to be so preferable to the religiously inspired conservatism that they attacked? We may not need to answer such a query in the abstract, for the post-religious Right has already arrived; look no further than the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.
Indeed, the rise of Donald Trump speaks volumes to the secularization of the American Right. The New York real estate magnate’s takeover of the Republican Party – and subsequent victory in the general election – can only be understood as the direct result of a decline in religiosity among Republican voters and the working class writ large.
Upon initial consideration, this might be a surprising contention. Much has been written about the religious Right’s loyal support of Trump. It’s undeniable that most of this voting bloc went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 – and most likely will do so again in 2020. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that this is more of a transactional relationship than a love affair – it’s not unlikely that a president Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have enjoyed similar support from this coalition for their stances on issues like religious liberty and abortion. Despite their voting for Trump, polling shows that the devoutly religious members of the conservative coalition were not the group responsible for Trump’s ascendance.
It is true that in a choice between Trump and the progressive Left, most of the religious Right held their nose and chose Trump. But the voter base that propelled Trump’s meteoric rise to power – the faction of the Republican electorate that forced Trump to be the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton, as it were – is overwhelmingly the secularized portion of the Republican coalition. This is an important nuance that is often missed by the mainstream coverage of Trump’s relationship with conservative voters across the country: Trump’s core constituency is disproportionately comprised of Republican voters who tell pollsters that they seldom or never go to church.
The narrative about the religious Right’s disproportionate support for Trump isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s incomplete: Republican voters who regularly report church attendance were significantly more likely to support mainstream candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson in the primary, and were uninterested in supporting Trump until the general election. But Trump’s base is largely comprised of the Republican voters who no longer regularly attend religious services.
We broke down Republican primary voters by church attendance. Among the most frequent attenders—those going more than once a week—Trump got about 32 percent of the vote. Trump also got a minority of those who simply go once a week. Among those who reported going “a few times a year,” Trump got about half. He got an easy majority (55 percent) of those Republicans who “seldom” attend, and a full 62 percent of those who never attend. That is, every step down in church attendance brought a step up in Trump support, and vice versa. The most frequent attenders were half as likely to support Trump as were the least frequent attenders…the GOP electorate has secularized, and [that secularization] helped Trump win the GOP nomination.
In short, the Trump phenomenon is a clear indicator that the American Right has not been immune to the broader national trend of secularization. Indeed, it was the very abandonment of religion within the broadly conservative voter base that made Donald Trump president. We have yet to fully understand the nature of this new post-religious conservatism, but the political viability of its newly assembled voter bloc means that its influence will be felt in American politics for some time – just as the religious Right wanes, weakened by sustained attacks from the secular Left, a post-religious Right has risen to take its place.
This post-religious Right is more populist than conservative, and more interested in political dominance than the promotion of virtue and the good. This development should be unsurprising, for it is the political consequence of a faithless society – an empty nihilism made flesh, the necessary political coalition that logically follows from a conservatism robbed of its moral foundations. Attempts to chase religion out of American culture, ranging from the Obama Administration’s persecution of Catholic charities who refused to pay for abortive agents, to a pervasive broadside assault on the conscience rights of religious businesses across the country who do not conform with secularized attitudes towards transgenderism and same-sex marriage, have eventually taken their toll on the state of religious observance in America.
Those who criticized what they identified as the excesses of the religious Right should consider if the grievance politics, pettiness and chauvinism of this new populist coalition is preferable to a politics of a religiously informed disposition towards social issues surrounding sexual morality and the sacred nature of unborn human life. Those, too, who advocate the continual secularization of American society should look to the state of our national politics to understand the nature of their achievement. When God exits the public square, humans do not magically lose their innate thirst for transcendent meaning. Rather, the pursuit of a personal relationship with one’s maker is replaced by the quest for political power, the spiritual community of one’s church, synagogue or mosque is discarded for membership in a partisan tribe, and the eternal struggle between Good and Evil is subjugated to whatever cheap ideological battles happen to be momentarily fashionable.
If you didn’t like the religious Right, you’re going to hate the post-religious one. Reap, meet sow.