Wednesday, Sept 19, 2018
Tags: 2018 Elections, Audio, Conservatism, Politics, Secularism
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, September 19, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why the secular turn in conservatism imperils the very foundation of conservative thought
Worldview analysis isn't easy in any age. It's particularly important and particularly difficult in the modern age. But as we look at the contemporary context in the year 2018, there are some really complicated questions, rather vexing trying to understand what's really going on at the level of worldview. This includes the current political context and that goes back not just to the 2016 presidential election, but that election does serve as something of a catalyst for demonstrating the difficulty of this kind of worldview analysis. One point of concern here is that we simply don't have enough evidence of where the culture is at the moment on many questions. This appears to be a time of considerable flux and tumult, and what's also interesting is to see that that tumult is taking place in some rather unexpected places.
To place this politically, it's taking place not only among the Democrats, clearly surging to the Left in a current partisan identity crisis. It's also true amongst conservatives. It's true amongst Republicans, it's true amongst Christian conservatives trying to figure out what's really going on, on a very quickly shifting political terrain. Writing in Sunday's edition of the New York Times, Ross Douthat begins his article entitled “Conservatism after Christianity” with these words, "One of the many paradoxes of the Trump era is that our unusual President couldn't have been elected and couldn't survive politically today without the support of religious conservatives. But at the same time his ascent was intimately connected to the secularization of conservatism, and his style gives us a taste of what to expect from a post-religious right."
Now, what's really important to understand, just one paragraph into this column, is that Ross Douthat isn't really making a political point, so much as he is looking at a deeper level of cultural analysis. He's asking the question, what's really going on in the conservative movement today? Is it really conservative? Is it being transformed into something else? And of course when you're talking about the political spectrum in the United States, in modern America, this means talking about in general terms, the Republican Party. So the question is, what's happening to the worldview of at least the majority of those who are now represented by the Republican Party?
What Douthat is pointing to is something that is now very well documented, it's not just a matter of generalized discernment. It's becoming more and more documented that the Republican party's worldview is turning in a more secular direction. It is trending secular. The values, the vocabulary, the ethos, the habits of the Republican Party, a party that had been, at least until recently, clearly identified with the Judeo-Christian commitments of traditional conservatism. That Republican party redefined in that manner over the last half of the 20th century, now appears to be being redefined in a clearly more secular direction.
That's not to say that Christians aren't welcome. It's not to say that there are policies being advocated that are to the advantage of, and include also the support of conservative Christians in the United States. It is to say that this really deserves a closer attention, and here's what becomes very interesting. When you are now able to look at an increasing amount of data coming from the 2016 election, it becomes clear that there are two different types of voters for Donald Trump. Now this is important, not just considering the 2016 election. It's very important as you consider the political landscape in America today, and the cultural and moral consequences.
Of course, this means for Christians, trying to understand at the most fundamental level of worldview what's really happening. Ross Douthat points to research that's really interesting. It points to the fact that the main distinction between the two major groups of supporters or Donald Trump in 2016 were secular supporters and religious supporters, and those religious supporters overwhelmingly identified as Conservative Catholics and Evangelical Christians. Looking at new research conducted by the Cato Institute for the Study Group,
Douthat writes, "A new survey reveals the extent to which a basic religious division still exists within Trump's Republican party. The church goers who ultimately voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton still tend to hold different views than his more secular supporters, and the more religious part of the GOP is still the less-Trumpist portion. Meaning less populist on economics, but also less authoritarian and tribal on race and identity."
Douthat underlines the fact that the research doesn't indicate that the two groups are divided between more and less conservative, but rather they are divided into more or less traditionally conservative. That's a contrast between traditional Republican conservatism, and the more populous diversion that is now in ascendancy within the party and perhaps within the right wing of American culture. One of the interesting things that Douthat points to is the fact that “in general, church going Republicans look more like the party many elite conservatives wanted to believe existed before Trump came along. More racially tolerant, more accepting of multiculturalism and globalization, and also more consistently libertarian on economics."
"Secularized Trump voters," he writes, "look more like the party as Trump has tried to remake it. Blending economic populism with strong racial resentment." Interestingly, he says, in the survey, the different groups make about the same amount of money, which cuts against strict economic anxiety explanations for the Trumpist direction of the Republican party. "But the church goers and non-church goers differ more in social capital. The irreligious are less likely to have college degrees, less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced. They're also less civically engaged, less satisfied with their neighborhoods and communities, and less trusting and optimistic in general."
Now at the level of worldview analysis, this should cause us to pause, to slow down for a moment, because perhaps the most important part of this article is actually this section on social capital. Social capital, as we have described, is the category of what it means to hold a certain social status, and to have a certain investment in the larger society. This is really important, and traditional conservatism has understood the necessity of social capital. Social capital explains why people do the things that are understood to be respectable. Why they get married, why they hold jobs, why they are concerned to look like good law abiding, contributing citizens to their neighbors and to the community.
Social capital explains the kind of trust that someone would have in doing business with an insurance agent or a banker. This is of course, true throughout the professions. It's important for anyone who's in business, just about anyone in any sphere of employment. Employees have to trust the employer, and employers have to trust the employees. They're looking for several clues or cues as to whether or not one can be trusted. The concept of social capital is really important, and it's analogous, it's comparable to the idea of monetary capital, financial capital. It's equivalent to the idea of understanding what it means to put money in the bank or to make an investment for the future.
Social capital refers to a certain kind of bank account of social respect, of esteem in the community, of standing amongst one's social circle. The idea is this: we have to do certain things to put social money in the bank. This is what's required for civilization itself. So one of the interesting things, I think perhaps the most interesting aspect of this research that Ross Douthat points to in Sunday's edition to the New York Times is that if you're looking at modern American populism and conservatism, the major distinction is between the more and the less secular. That means the more and the less religious, which means Christian.
And you're looking at the fact that one of the distinctives of the Christians is that they have much higher social capital. They're more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced, less likely to be involved in any number of activities, or the kinds of life events that would draw down social capital rather than to add it. There is abundant evidence and this is exactly what is going on. And it's really important for Christians to understand that this points to something that is of great importance. It's this: Christians don't necessarily seek to build social capital for the sake of building social capital.
Christians–faithful gospel, biblical Christians, obeying Christ, obeying the commands of Scripture, honoring what God honors in Scripture–will actually do the things that just happened to be what generally adds and doesn't deduct from social capital. Long-term, the big warning that comes in this report is the fact that conservatism in America, following liberalism in America, is trending more secular. Now, maybe this is just inevitable, given the larger secularization taking place in the culture. But here's where we also have to understand that conservatism classically defined, a respect for institutions, a respect for tradition and understanding that certain elemental objects of society must be honored. Certain relationships must be treasured and preserved. Certain habits of the heart must be not only honored, but also passed down to the next generation.
That particular form of understanding we define as conservative, is deeply rooted in a biblical worldview. I gained access to the total report that Douthat sites to the body of research, that was published by the voters study group. This research that was done by the Cato Institute, the author of the article, the research report is Emily Eakins. One of the most interesting aspects of the actual report is the fact that it includes warnings, or at least very critical points of analysis such as this. The more secular conservatives are driven by a different set of concerns than the more religious conservatives. They tend to be more economic. They tend to have more to do with issues like immigration, and tariffs and tax policy than they do with moral questions.
Those are the very questions that of course have been the main concern of Christian conservatives. Issues such as marriage, and sexuality and issues such as abortion. Now, of course when you're looking at the Trump administration, you're looking at a very clear set of pro-life commitments. But the question is where is the underlying base going? Where is the trend pointing? And there's abundant evidence that that trend isn't a more secular direction. Then the report raises an interesting question. What's going to happen then, to what is now understood to be American conservatism on the issues that are arrayed by the letters LGBTQ?
Because as it turns out, the more secular conservatives are far less concerned about those issues, and far more likely to take a morally libertarian position to go along with the larger culture. That's the opposite of the position taken by biblical conviction by conservative Christians, or by Christian conservatives. By the way, the main concern of this report is not the point I am now about to make, but this point has certainly come to light over the last several years, and that is this. If those in America who disliked conservatism, dislike conservatism because of it's unquestionable links to conservative Christianity, then just wait until you see a secular conservatism unbound by biblical values, and unhinged from, detached from a Christian biblical worldview.
I'll be blunt and say, I find it very doubtful that such a worldview could be genuinely and enduringly defined as conservative at all. But there can certainly be no question that the worldview issues are everywhere we look in this kind of analysis and research. But of course that's exactly what Christians, understanding the importance of worldview would expect.
Does anger actually turn into votes? As midterm elections approach, Democrats look for increased turnout among two different groups
But then on the other side of the political partisan cultural divide, yesterday's edition of The Wall Street Journal ran an important article by Gerald F. Seib, entitled, “Democrats Quandary Turn Anger into Votes.”
This again is also interesting because, as we've been watching the leftward lurch, the surge towards the Left in the Democratic Party ... and by the way, it's not just in the primary votes. It's been rather anecdotal and spotty there. It's more in the kind of national conversation, that has pushed the national figures in the Democratic Party so far to the Left. But as we've been watching that there are some other interesting developments taking place amongst the Democrats, and amongst those who identify as political progresses in the United States.
For one thing, as Seib points out, the animating energy right now on the political left and in the Democratic Party is not really about policies or even platform issues at all. It's about anger. There is no doubt that liberals in the United States are angry about President Trump, about the Trump administration, about the policies of the Trump administration. About the administration's position on so many different issues. About the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. About this executive order and that executive order.
But as Seib points out, there's a huge question that remains to be answered. Does anger actually turn into votes? Here's where there's another interesting issue of worldview importance. It turns out that on the political left, there is a far more significant fall off when you compare voting in presidential elections with voting in midterm election, such as we are facing in November. Now again, we go back to the article by Ross Douthat, and the study undertaken by the Cato Institute and the importance of social capital. Here's the issue: those who have greater social capital, tend also to have a far greater incentive to vote. To translate their convictions and their political concerns into voting, the act of voting. Simultaneously it turns out that having less social capital, less investment in the culture, less employment and other kinds of issues that are institutionally connected, adding social capital. It turns out that the less social capital you have, the less likely you are actually to turn out to vote. There can be no question, Seib acknowledges, that right now, looking at the midterm elections, the Democrats, the more politically liberal perspective has an enthusiasm advantage.
That's not unusual by the way when you're looking at the party opposed to an incumbent president. It's unusually high by any measure right now, but it's not unprecedented as a pattern. But it's also a huge question. Does that enthusiasm gap turn out to have an actual impact, even a predictable impact on the outcome of the elections coming in November? That's the unanswered question. And it again is laden with worldview significance. This is where polling and surveying often fails to understand the reality, and that reality is this. When it comes to taking an action like voting, it's not just whether or not you hold position A or B, it's how strongly you hold position A or B. It's how consistently you hold position A or B. It's how urgent or important you see issue A or B in your everyday life. It's whether or not you see A or issue B as either strongly or not so strongly held, and is having an impact or less of an impact on your family, on your life. Perhaps even more importantly on your grandchildren, or your potential great-grandchildren. That's a very different perspective. It has a great deal to do with whether or not you vote side. Seib also points to another reality and that is, that President Obama and the party he led during the eight years he was in the White House, suffered devastating setbacks in the midterm elections after both of his Presidential elections.
As a matter of fact, the losses for the Democratic Party during the administration of President Obama at every level, including Congress, where the control of Congress was lost. Going all the way to looking at state and local elections right down, it is now documented, to County Commissioner and members of the City Council. It's also interesting that Seib notes, and again this is absolutely accurate, that whatever edge in actual voting the Democratic Party is going to have, it's going to require an unprecedented turnout from two different groups. Those are interesting as well. That is minority voters and millennials.
When it comes to the millennials, this is a huge question. And the question is, are they actually going to vote? There's no doubt that they say they hold very strong positions on so many issues, but that's what younger generations tend to say to pollsters. They don't always tend to follow that up with the act of voting. One of the interesting things that has been seen in previous election cycles over recent generations is that younger voters say that they're going to vote, they even say that they did vote, when many of the records show they didn't actually vote at all.
But they would have us to know that they felt strongly about voting even if they didn't vote. But of course, the only strong feelings about voting that matter are the strong feelings that lead one to vote. By the way, you will remember that in 2016, similar kinds of polls, asking similar kinds of questions, made very clear that Donald Trump could not be elected president of the United States. But as you might remember, he was.
While similar numbers of Americans and Europeans report themselves to be secular, they are not secular in the same way
Next, as we're thinking about worldview and understanding what's at stake and theological and religious conviction, we turned to an article from the Pew Research Center by Jonathan Evans. The headline of the article that was released just days ago, "U. S. Adults are More Religious than Western Europeans." Now, when you look at that headline, your first thought might be, "I think we knew that already." That in one sense we did know that already. But what we didn't know before this research was, how exactly it is that American adults tend to be more religious than western European adults? Even when they report themselves to be similarly secular when it comes to numbers? Now as we're thinking about this, I want to pause for a moment and say, here's another problem with this kind of research.
You'll see headline after headline, news story after news story. There are blurbs and little paragraphs inserted in local newspapers. There are little announcements made in the media in one form or another. It might be a tweet indicating something about how people anywhere, whether in the United States or Europe or elsewhere, for that matter, indicate that they do or do not believe in God. Or they do or do not agree with this particular religious or doctrinal teaching. The fact is that, once again, what's not measured in so many ways is the intensity of this belief, or even the relative understanding of this belief. That becomes very clear in this study, because even though similar numbers of Americans and Europeans report themselves to be secular, it turns out they're by no means secular in the same way.
Indeed, according to this report from Pew Research, and the research coming from Pew is very credible. It turns out that those Americans who indicate that they are irreligious, are overwhelmingly in some cases, more religious than those who indicate as Europeans, that they are religious. So what in the world does this mean? Well, it means this. It means that Europeans who think themselves to be religious are actually more secular than they even understand themselves to be. On the other hand, Americans who think themselves to be secular, are actually more religious than they think themselves to be.
That tells you about a fundamentally different frame of reference. It tells you that in Europe the reference is now so overwhelmingly secular, that even the people who say they're not secular are more secular than they recognize. Meanwhile, in the United States, the lingering influence of Christianity is still strong enough, that even those who identify as secular, they don't realize just how un-secular they are in many of their beliefs, practices and presuppositions.
In the research we read, "In fact by several measures of religious commitment, religiously unaffiliated people in the United States are as religious as, or in some cases even more religious than Christians," the Christians italicized in the text, "throughout western European countries. For example, we are told while 20% of US nones, that is N-O-N-E-S, those with no religious affiliation, pray daily. Only 6% of Christians in the United Kingdom do. And religiously unaffiliated Americans are about twice as likely as German Christians to believe in God with absolute certainty, 27% versus 12%."
Now, let's just pause for a moment. What does that tell us? Well, it tells us that we better look at this kind of data pretty carefully, and not accept what we are often told at face value. For instance, here we have people who claimed to have no religious affiliation. So good so far. But so many in America then jumped to say they're agnostics, they're atheists, they are some kind of secularist. But it turns out that many of them, a significant portion of them, not only do believe in God, but they believe in a God who is very much defined as the God revealed in scripture.
But on the other hand, even those who claimed some Christian identity in Europe, many of them it turns out, actually think themselves to be Christians. But it must be some kind of cultural or familiar indicator, not a matter of religious conviction. Because so many of them turn out to have so little biblical conviction. They claim to be Christians, but the frame of reference is so secular, it turns out that by theological and biblical definition, many of them are by no means Christians. There's something else that's revealed in this research more implicit than explicit. It's this.
Americans are still overwhelmingly reticent to answer in secular terms when they are asked a direct question. "Do you have any religious affiliation?" "Well, no, not really." "So are you secular?" "Yes, I guess so." "Do you believe in God?" "Of course." There's a fundamental inconsistency there. The inconsistency only grows more acute when, you find out that even many American adults who say they are more secular when they speak of God, affirmed not only the God exists, but that He is all powerful, thus omnipotent. Meanwhile, we are told that in western Europe, only a small minority of those adults, who still say that they are Christian affirm that God is omnipotent, which is to say they do not believe in the God of the Bible.
It's to the credit of the Pew Research Center that they look at questions more deeply than other reports and other research, that might get more readily into the news, more readily reduced to a sound bite. These issues are too big for sound bites. A. W. Tozer had it exactly right over a half century ago, when he argued that the most important thing about you, is what comes first to your mind when you hear the name God. He was absolutely right, and it's just a reminder that the most important question human beings will face, and will face with eternal consequences, is a question that isn't easily much less adequately answered in any poll.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Jacksonville, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.