September 27, 2020

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Using religion as a political tool could be problematic this year

BY JAMES A. HAUGHT

Less than three months from now, the 2020 election may reveal whether America’s white evangelical “religious right” finally is losing political power.

So far, early polls imply that President Trump – the darling of born-again whites – may suffer a historic defeat. (Although I’m unreligious, I pray ardently for that outcome.)

Of course, a huge Trump loss could be attributed partly to his mishandling of the bizarre pandemic jangling America.  But it will be telling if the GOP’s fundamentalist wing cannot rescue him.

The religious right was so strong and organized that it was decisive in electing three Republican presidents:  Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump.  And it produced countless state-level GOP victories.  However, various indicators now suggest that it’s losing clout.  To wit:

Americans who say their faith is “none” are quitting religion at an amazing rate.  In the 1990s, they rose to one-tenth of the population, and now they’re one-fourth.  They generally hold progressive political values, making them the largest faith segment in the Democratic Party base. As religion retreats, white evangelicals have shrunk to just 15 percent of the populace.

Southern Baptists have lost 1.8 million members since 2006. Gallup found that American religious membership as a whole fell 20 percent in two decades.

Relentlessly changing demographics alter the electorate.  Robert Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, says the once-mighty majority has shrunk to just 42 percent, with more shrinkage ahead.

Unfortunately, many churchless “nones” shun politics and vote at low rates.  In contrast, fundamentalists are right-wing political dynamos, solidly Republican.  The New York Times calls them “God’s Red Army.” In the 2018 off-year election, evangelical organizer Ralph Reed spent $18 million in a massive get-out-the-vote drive in born-again churches.  Reed boasts that he averted a Democratic “blue wave.”  Also, the Family Research Council sent “values voter” guides to 28,000 far-right pastors.

Interestingly, the historical Jesus was a liberal who sided with underdogs, constantly preaching: help the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, feed the hungry, aid the unfortunate. You might say he endorsed the social “safety net” supported by progressive politics.  It’s a contradiction for evangelicals to back Republicans who want to slash the safety net and aid the rich.

This year, another big-money political blitz is afoot.  “Evangelicals for Trump” was launched on Jan. 3 in Miami.  Millions will be spent to mobilize born-again congregations for the GOP.  Resurrection Pictures is ready to release a film declaring that the AntiChrist will win if Trump loses.

But the pandemic is preventing many churches from holding worship services.  Maybe that will hinder the attempt to use religion as a political machine.

The embarrassing outing of sexual voyeur Jerry Falwell, Jr. will, hopefully, blunt his once powerful political influence as well.

The election is Nov. 3,  will 2020 be the year when white evangelicals no longer can swing victory to the Republican Party?  I devoutly hope so.

James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

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