We’ve nearly put another year behind our belts and stand poised to begin another. Another year in which America will be less of what Republicans want it to be. Gallup’s 2014 Year in Review tells us that Three-Quarters of Americans Identify as Christian.
Isn’t that good news for Republicans? Not really. It is not the 90 percent frequently claimed by Republican candidates and Religious Right demagogues (the same thing really, these days), but that 75 percent still sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But in 2012 it was 77 percent and back in 1990, it was 86 percent.
It sounds like a lot until you compare it to the 1950s, you know, Golden Days of conservatism: back when J. Edgar Hoover was squeezing into women’s clothing and Joseph McCarthy was attacking Communists and “homosexuals”; back when the words “One Nation Under God” were being added to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954) and “In God We Trust” replaced the secular “Out of Many, One” as the national motto (1956); when proud Anglo-Saxon males supported their families with a house in the suburbs and a car in the driveway; Back before women and blacks got uppity; Back before the country filled up with Latinos and Asians and people from countries WASP Americans had never heard of.
Back then, “Gallup surveys showed that up to 71% of Americans identified as Protestant, and small percentages had no religious identity.” Where once three-quarters had been Protestants alone, now barely three quarters are even Christian, and the numbers continue to drop.
The last half-century has brought quite the sea change.
The Era of the WASP is behind us and falling away in the rear view mirror. Each year we become less recognizably the country that fought Hitler and then stood up to Stalin. Less the country of the Greatest Generation and more the land of the Millennials.
According to Gallup:
The proportion of Americans identifying as Protestant dropped by one percentage point from 2013 to 2014, while the Catholic and Mormon percentages stayed essentially the same.
About 6% of Americans identify with a non-Christian religion, including 2% who are Jewish, less than 1% who are Muslim and 3% who identify with other non-Christian religions. This leaves 16% who say they don’t have a religious preference, along with another 3% who don’t answer the question. This combined 19% without a formal religious identity is up one point from 2013.
The slight erosion of Americans’ identification as Protestant and concomitantly slight increase in the percentage with no religious preference exemplifies general trends in religious identity over the past decades
The problem is that conservatives are misremembering the country they say they want to take back. Yes, in the days before 1965’s Immigration Act, most Americans were either Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. But Christians of the 1950s were politically moderate. For that matter, despite Joe McCarthy, Republicans of the 1950s were politically moderate. Even though Billy Graham was popular, he had no political influence. Nobody thought about turning the Grand Old Party into God’s Own Party until Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.
David Brooks once said that Romney “seems to have walked straight out of the 1950s” and that might explain the visceral loathing felt by liberals and progressives toward a man who keeps “binders full of women.” But it is difficult to imagine our only Republican president of the 1950s coming out of the 1950s as imagined by today’s GOP.
Back then we had a Republican president who warned us about the growing power and influence of the military industrial complex. Yes, Eisenhower did agree to change the national motto, and he did use the occasion of Flag Day in 1954 to say, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith,” but he finished that remark by saying, “and I don’t care what it is,” and his “Christmas” cards wished recipients a “fine holiday season.”
We are told that, “presidential historian William Lee Miller once noted, Eisenhower was a ‘fervent believer in a very vague religion.’ Which sounds a lot like many of the Founding Fathers, come to think of it.
No Republican would say either of those things today. Only godless Democrats talk about “holiday seasons” instead of “Christmas,” we are told (even though it is not true). For today’s Republicans, it’s their brand of Christianity (which isn’t recognizably Christian at all) or bust. Things like President Obama’s 2011 Christmas card, “From our family to yours, may your holidays shine with the light of the season,” even though it’s pretty much par for the past hundred years, just won’t do.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, complains that,
Christians should learn to detect a functional account of religious belief when listening to public figures speak. Liberals tend to speak in functional terms of meaning and purpose. Conservatives tend to speak functionally in terms of social order, stability, and morality.
None of these is a substitute for authentic Christianity—a faith that is predicated on being true—not merely meaningful or helpful.
And that is the problem for conservatives today, this insistence on a monolithic truth in an increasingly diverse nation composed of an increasing plurality of religions. The 1950s are behind us, irrevocably departed into the pages of history. We can debate that decade’s events and even their meaning; we cannot bring them back.
The Tea Party can demand they get their country back but they can’t have their country back. Not only is that impossible according to the physical underpinnings of our shared reality (and even a time machine would only take them back to the 1950s, not bring the 1950s here), but the past they want is a past that never really existed.
Yes, the country is still predominantly Christian, but far less so than twenty years ago, let alone more than a half-century. This is a chasm that will grow wider in 2016, and in every year to come. Their worst enemy is not an increasingly militant Obama, but time itself.
And here is a final amusing truth: today’s Christians are not yesterday’s Christians, leaving us with the paradox of a declining number of increasingly militant “Christians” yearning for a time when America was even more of a Christian nation than today, but a nation full of moderate Christians nothing like themselves.
You can’t go home, particularly when the home you aim for is a home that never existed, and you can’t go back, because the future never, ever takes you to the past.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.