|By Balmer, Randall|
How U.S. evangelicals rejected one of their own- and helped spawn the "New Atheism."
Recent polls suggest that America's vaunted religiosity is slipping, including the percentage of people willing to identify themselves as evangelicals. At the same time, the percentage of avowed secularists has risen. A movement calling itself the "New Atheism"-those adamantly opposed to religion-has attracted a considerable following.
The oracles of this movement-including
Hard data may be elusive, but the latest generation of American young people is much less religious than the last, and the growing secularism they represent could be a byproduct of the polarizing effect of the Religious Right. With evangelical fundamentalism being the dominant and most public form of U.S. Christianity over the last generation, young seekers would rather turn away from all religion than adapt to the harsh expression of faith that excludes so many of their peers and often stands against their aspirations for fairness and equality.
Religious fundamentalism has tainted the reputation of Christianity. For many, unbelief has become more palatable than belief, if believing requires an embrace of the distortions that have so characterized U.S. Christianity over the last several decades.
What prompted the emergence of this New Atheism or secular fundamentalism? What historical forces contributed to its rise? The roots of this phenomenon go back more than three decades-to the political mobilization of a different species of fundamentalism that became the movement commonly known as the Religious Right. AS THE 1980 presidential campaign reached its climax, an interested citizen, a preacher, picked up the telephone. Although the race was still fluid, his preferred candidate was trailing in the polls, and yet inserting himself explicitly into the race was dicey. His ability to sway voters, especially evangelical voters, was undisputed, but that influence derived precisely from his ability to appear above the fray. Over the course of a long and distinguished career, he had perfected the art of the discreet political gesture-a strategic handshake, a brief touch on the shoulder, a whispered aside in front of the cameras-to telegraph his preferences.
But this election was especially fraught. One candidate, the incumbent running for re-election, was known as a family man who shared the preacher's evangelical theological convictions. The other major candidate, divorced and remarried, had spent much of his career in
Receiver in hand, the preacher considered his options one last time and punched the numbers. At the other end of the line was
The story behind the evangelical abandonment of
Carter's improbable rise to the presidency in 1976 was fueled by voter discontent with
In earlier decades of U.S. history, progressive evangelicalism animated various movements of social reform, including the abolition of slavery, public education, prison reform, and advocacy for women's rights, including the right to vote. Many evangelicals were involved in peace movements, and some evangelicals even doubted the morality of capitalism because it necessarily elevated avarice over altruism and therefore ran counter to the teachings of Jesus.
Just over a year later, Carter announced his candidacy for president, drawing on many of those same themes as well as his frequently repeated promise to never knowingly lie to the American people. He pledged his commitment to racial reconciliation and health-care reform and to pursue human rights, a reduction of nuclear weapons, and a less imperial foreign policy.
Carter's campaign confounded the pundits, who thought that the voters' infatuation with the one-term governor of
Carter's tenure as president was, by any measure, a stormy one, beset by persistent energy crises, stubbornly high inflation, the Soviet invasion of
It makes no sense, until you consider that evangelicalism itself was deeply divided in the 1970s. Carter's understanding of the faith, shaped by progressive evangelicalism, pushed him toward the leftof the political spectrum, whereas many white, northern evangelicals, following the lead of
Conservatives, however, were eager to regain their footing after the disastrous Nixon presidency, and several savvy political operatives conspired to do so.
Weyrich had tried various issues over the years to lure conservative evangelicals into the political arena-abortion, pornography, school prayer, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment-but nothing worked. By the mid-1970s, however, he finally found the issue that would energize them: the attempt by the
Weyrich and other leaders of the nascent Religious Right, however, were careful to frame their protests as a defense of religious freedom-which meant, in this case, the freedom to discriminate. Ignoring the fact that exemption from taxation is actually a form of public subsidy, they railed against what they called governmental intervention into religious matters.
Weyrich's larger challenge in forging the Religious Right was directing this righteous anger against Carter, a task that required an audacious sleight of hand. The
Midway through his term as president, Carter's approval was sagging, which made him susceptible to the attacks and distortions of his political adversaries, including politically conservative preachers. Carter was vilified for the "giveaway" of the
From the other end of the political spectrum, Carter faced criticism for reinstituting draftregistration and upgrading U.S. military systems. He was slow to address human rights abuses among some nations long considered allies, including
Although many progressive evangelicals shared these concerns, Carter's greater political threat emanated from the right. By 1979, a year before Carter faced the voters, leaders of the Religious Right found the issue that would galvanize grassroots evangelical voters: abortion. Although evangelicals regarded abortion as a "Catholic issue" through most of the 1970s, and some evangelical leaders had applauded the Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973, a film series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, featuring
The rise of the Religious Right and the demise of progressive evangelicalism also transformed U.S. politics, contributing to the election of
Every action tends to trigger a reaction, and I see an unmistakable connection between these two developments-the rise of the Religious Right and the emergence of the New Atheism. Ironically, they're both examples of fundamentalism in practice, one growing out of the other.
Both species of fundamentalism revel in a dualistic view of the world. For conservative fundamentalists, it's a slavish biblical literalism that refuses to countenance any ambiguity on social issues or to acknowledge that the laws of a pluralistic society cannot be derived directly from the Hebrew Bible. The dualism of secular fundamentalists resists any common ground between faith and reason and forecloses even the possibility of transcendence.
Both the political fundamentalists of the Religious Right and the secular fundamentalists of the New Atheism are guilty of excess. Their dualistic perspective on the world blinds them to shades of gray.
Whatever his shortcomings as president,
His political adversaries, however, saw the world in black and white, stripped of nuance. The activism of religious fundamentalists in the turning-point election of 1980 may have altered the political landscape, but the emergence of the Religious Right also set the stage for the backlash of the New Atheism.
Fundamentalism, after all, begets fundamentalism.
The growing secularism of young people today could be a byproduct of the polarizing effect of the Religious Right.
The evangelical abandonment of
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