Tuesday, October 8, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, October 8, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Secularization of the Liberal Left: Theological Issues Come to the Political Foreground
We've been watching in the United States the parallel movement of politics and religion, you might even say politics and theology. The reality is that over the course of the last several decades, it has become abundantly clear that the political polarization in this country is almost exactly matching a theological polarization as well. And the reason why this comes as a surprise to so many people is that this was not the case, not certainly in any scale, like what we're now seeing in decades past.
If you go back to the middle point of the 20th century, this was not so, but we're going to see even as the trajectory of the Democratic party in the political left has been secular and the identity of the Republican party and conservative politics has been increasingly defined by theology, the reality is that it is the left that is markedly changed. That's because if you were to go back to at least the midpoint of the 20th century, you would find that the overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats would be represented by very traditional religious affiliation, overwhelmingly Protestant, after that, Roman Catholic and included would be especially the Jewish representation of the population.
That's why you could go back to the 1950s and 60s and one book title, Will Herberg's famous book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew included just about everyone in the United States and for sure just about everyone in the United States Congress. Having no religious affiliation was inconceivable at the midpoint of the 20th century, but it's becoming more and more normative if not for Democratic office holders than for Democratic voters.
This caught the attention of FiveThirtyEight in a big way in recent days. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Daniel Cox reported, "A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee formally acknowledged what has been evident for some time; non-religious voters are a critical part of the party's base. In a one-page resolution passed at its annual summer meeting the DNC called on Democratic politicians to recognize and celebrate the contributions of non-religious Americans who make up one third of Democrats."
That's a much bigger statement than might at first appear. You're looking at the fact that the Democratic party is now saying non-believers, absolutely secular, or at least presumably secular, people are now representing at least a third of the Democratic party. And what's also noticeable is the fact that they're looking at a direction, the future direction, of that same party and of liberal politics in America is even more radically secular, and if the forecasts are true in relatively short order in a short amount of time.
The two authors here tell us, "Researchers haven't found a comprehensive explanation for why the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased over the past few years. The shift is too large and too complex, but,” we are told, “a recent swell of social science research indicates that even if politics wasn't the sole culprit, it was an important contributor."
Cited in the article is Michele Margolis, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. She said, "Politics can drive whether you identify with a faith, how strongly you identify with that faith and how religious you are." I'll interject here that there has been a great deal of attention in the academic field of political science and also amongst some in the media, certainly also some political leaders in reports that have made claims such as, “It is politics that determines religious affiliation or identity.” Research has been cited indicating that the political divide is driving the religious divide, but it's made up of some very interesting claims.
One of them is actually quite interesting. Research has indicated that some families now report that they would be more upset if their children married outside of their political party, even as compared to marrying someone outside their religious affiliation. That's not unimportant and it is certainly not uninteresting, but you're also looking at the fact that that's simply a generalization. You're not even looking at a careful definition of what religious difference would mean. That is to say, if you're looking at Protestants in the United States, it's conceivable, of course, that a family might be more upset about a Republican family's child marrying into a Democratic family than a Baptist family than as a child marrying into a Presbyterian family, but that's a relatively close change when it comes to American Protestantism.
The reality is, both are still identified as American Protestants. My point is this, there is yet no convincing argument that it is politics that is driving the religious divide, except in one direction and actually the FiveThirtyEight indicates the very same reading. They also make the point that all of the movement, the movement on that divide is happening on one side of the divide. The left is becoming far more secular than it has ever been in the past.
One headline in the FiveThirtyEight article simply says, "Liberal Americans are less religious than they used to be." Well, that's a data point. The reporters tell us, "Over the course of a single generation, the country has gotten a lot less religious. As recently as the early 1990s, less than 10% of Americans lacked a formal religious affiliation and liberals weren't all that much likelier to be non-religious than the public overall. Today, however, nearly one in four Americans are religiously unaffiliated.” As the story goes on, we are told that, “That unaffiliated status is heavily weighted towards those who are more liberal on the political spectrum. The more liberal you are, the less likely you are to belong to a faith, whereas if you're conservative, you're more likely to say you're religious."
But just remember, if you go back a half century, everyone basically said that he or she was religious. The change is on one side of the equation. Now, that's not to say that there hasn't been change on the more conservative side, but it's not a change from non-religious to religious. It is a change from less theologically-based to more theologically-based, and that too is incredibly important for us to understand.
David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, argues that the secular identity or the increased secular identity of some on the left has at least partly come about by the association of conservative theology with conservative politics, which has led some to reject both, and again, understandably so.
By the time you reach the end of this article, it's even more interesting because of the generational change the authors write, "It's no coincidence then that the youngest liberals, who never lived in a political world before the Christian right, are also the most secular." One of the researchers said, "It's very, very unlikely that a kid raised in a nonreligious liberal household would suddenly consider going to church." The authors then say, "The political implications of this shift are already evident. As more liberals become nonreligious, the Democratic party's base is becoming more secular, complicating the party's efforts at reaching more religious voters.”
But the article goes on to say, "But what it means for religion is less clear." Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison College, said that, “The impact might be blunted by the fact that the people who are becoming nonreligious mostly weren't that involved in religion to begin with." My one word response: exactly.
But as I said, and as the data demonstrate, as the research shows, and as we often discuss, when you look at the left, it's understandable. The political liberalization and the theological secularization go hand in hand, but how do you explain the dynamic on the more conservative side? As I said, the change there is not from nonreligious to religious, so how did the Republican party get assigned to this religious label?
Well, for one thing, that's the alternative to secularism, but there's another important issue that conservative Christians need to keep in mind. The theological issues have come to the foreground. When you're talking about issues such as abortion, the sanctity of life, when you're talking about marriage and whether or not marriage is the union of a man and a woman, if you're talking about all of these moral issues, inevitably they become theological because if you are operating from an even vaguely Christian perspective, then the only argument you have is basically theological. And under these political pressures, the more engaged you are on these issues, the more explicitly theological your arguments are going to be.
It just might be that there is no better demonstration of that than the issue of abortion. If you are arguing from a secular worldview, then you can define human life just about any way you please. You can say that human life begins at this point, at some other point, or virtually at no point whatsoever, but if you're operating from a biblical worldview, then you've got to start with all of life being God's gift and with the respect of life going all the way to fertilization; and there's the great dichotomy. You'll notice that the secular argument by definition doesn't involve any theological claims, but the conservative argument, in this case we're talking about a political spectrum of right to left liberal to conservative, those who would argue for the sanctity of human life and for laws restricting abortion, we essentially have to make arguments that are unashamedly and beyond any question theological. We're talking about God creating human life.
Here's another point: Efforts to try to create some kind of moderate middle, either politically or theologically, have failed and failed spectacularly over the last several decades. Why? It's because if you're talking about the sanctity of human life, you can't talk about affirming a little bit of the sanctity of life. The biggest issue there is not the failure of the political argument; it is the impossibility of the theological argument. That's why the middle ground has disappeared.
Do the 2020 Democratic Candidates for President Have Any Boundaries When It Comes to Abortion?
Making the point about that one issue, I also want to draw attention to an article that appeared recently at the Washington Post. The headline: “Democrat's Leftward Shift on Third Trimester Abortion.” Now again, this isn't appearing in a conservative newspaper. It's appearing in the Washington Post, a headline story. Aaron Blake is the reporter, and we are told that the democratic party has shifted so far left on the issue of abortion that even third trimester abortion as we have seen is now being routinely supported.
The Washington Post article cites Senator Bernie Sanders, when asked if a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth, responding, "The decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government and not the local government."
You'll notice a pattern here. Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked in May whether there should be any limitations on abortion. His answer, "I trust women to draw the line when it's their life." Simply for sake of time, I will not draw attention to the irony of almost every word in the Mayor's statement. Beto O'Rourke was also ask about third trimester abortions in April, but he went on to say, "The question is about abortion and reproductive rights and my answer to you is that that should be a decision that the woman makes about her body. I trust her." In other words, “No laws in any way restricting abortion under any circumstances right up until and including the moment of birth.”
The Post article traces the change this represents in the Democratic party. Going back to the 1990s, President Bill Clinton spoke of the need for abortion to be "safe, legal and rare." You won't hear that word “rare” amongst Democrats today. Barack Obama in 2008 said that late term abortion bans were appropriate — that was his very word — as long as there was "a strict well-defined exemption for the life of the mother." You're going to be hard pressed to see the Democratic nominee in 2020 come anything close to that kind of statement. So where was the turning point? Interestingly enough, the Washington Post says that the turning point has a name and that name is Hillary Clinton.
They point out that in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary established a pattern radically different from that of her husband. In the dynamic of the Democratic race against the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, eventually elected president of the United States, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, began to offer a more radical defensive abortion than any Democratic nominee had ever offered before. That's very interesting for us to know. That turns out to have played a big role in the 2016 election and in President Trump's victory in that election, and it turns out that the lesson learned by the Democratic party after that defeat was not to recalibrate its abortion position to the right, but rather to push it hard to the left.
Another footnote on this story, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was also the subject of a very insightful column in the Washington Post by Ross Douthat. The headline: "The Abortion Mysticism of Pete Buttigieg.” The point that Ross Douthat makes is that when Buttigieg was pressed on this issue, he tried to argue that the beginning of human life is when the baby draws its first breath and he actually tried to make a biblical argument, or at least to cite biblical authority to this end. That was to get to his point that the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision.
Describing his understanding of the Bible as a progressive interpretation, Douthat writes, "The progressive interpretation is probably the more accurate description of what was going through Buttigieg's mind when he was answering the question, but," he says, "the conservative claim that he believes that personhood is mystically imparted via the inhalation of oxygen is the more accurate description of his actual legal position and the emerging orthodoxy of his party."
The interesting point being made by Ross Douthat here is that when Pete Buttigieg claims that at any point he knows human life begins, he essentially was backed into making some form of a theological argument, a bad theological argument, but still in some sense a theological argument.
And then Ross Douthat goes on to press his case that it is basically a ridiculous argument. It's an argument that ignores the obvious, and that is that the baby prior to drawing that first breath is the very same baby who drew that breath, and that if Pete Buttigieg is willing to defend the life of that baby after it draws that first breath, then it is incoherent for him to argue that on the basis of some kind of mystical theology, he would not defend the life of that same baby the moment before it drew its first breath.
The Conundrum of the Democratic Party: How Can a Candidate Attract Both Religious and Secular Voters?
But then this takes us to another interesting article that appeared at Religion News Service. The columnist is Ryan Burge, who is also a social scientist. The headline of the article: "For Many Religious Americans, The Word ‘Liberal’ Has Become Taboo."
The most important insight from this article is that the word “liberal” is a word approached with a certain awkwardness, and that's perhaps an understatement, by most people on the American political spectrum. The word “liberal” has been perceived as a negative word and a few candidates want to claim it as their own identity, with an exception. The more secular are far more likely to be at home with the word “liberal” than those who have a religious affiliation. Burge writes, "The word ‘liberal’ has become a taboo for many religious Americans, at least according to data from the general social survey dating back to 1974." He goes on to say, "While over 40% of non-white weekly church attenders identified as liberal in the 1970s, that has now dropped to just 28%."
Now, I'll interject here. That doesn't mean that they are less liberal. It means that they are less willing to be known as liberal, to be labeled that way. He goes on to say, "The decline for the most devout white Americans is more dramatic. While 21.6% of them were liberals in 1974, today it's just 12.7%." Now again, does that mean that they are less liberal? No. It means that they are less likely to want to be called liberals.
The contrast comes later in Burge's article where he writes, "Among those who never attend worship services, the word ‘liberal’ retains some appeal. About four in 10, that's 40% of white Americans, who never attend services describe themselves as liberal, a percentage that has remained stable since the 1970s."
It is interesting that at the end of the article, Ryan Burge urges the Democrats to have more faith outreach. He says, "Democrats do themselves no favors by ignoring people of faith, specifically the 60% of Americans who still identify as Christians. Instead," he says, "a concerted effort to convince potential voters that it's possible to be a follower of Jesus and not a Republican may begin to unload some of the baggage that Christians have placed on the term ‘liberal.’" Now, that's not only a concluding paragraph, that's also an indication of why the article was written in the first place.
But then that takes me to another article that recently ran in Religion News Service. This one is by Jack Jenkins. The headline: “In Georgia, Democrat Launches a Campaign That's All About Faith.” Well, that looks interesting, a Democratic candidate who's making headline news by making the candidacy all about faith. Well, as it turns out, it's not all about faith and the word “faith” here becomes very interesting in its application.
Jenkins reports, "Mixtures of religion and politics aren't exactly unusual in Georgia, a state situated squarely in the heart of the Bible belt, where asking someone where they go to church is a common icebreaker. But this year," he says, "no one is combining faith, however broadly defined, and politics is acutely a Sarah Riggs Amico, 40, a newly announced Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate running to oppose incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue."
Now, words were included in this article that you might not have noted. Jenkins said, "But this year no one is combining faith and politics, but between faith and politics, the words however broadly defined." That's really interesting. Why did the reporter have to put in the words "however broadly defined"? Well, it turns out it is because the use of the word “faith” in this story turns out to require a very broad definition.
Jenkins continues, "Amico who lost a 2018 campaign for Lieutenant Governor launched her campaign in August with a video that made a direct appeal to religious voters in the state." The video included the words, "These are times that test our faith, in our beliefs, in our democracy, in each other.” And the footage then showed roles of faith leaders, we are told, “protesting in Charlottesville, Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, and crowds at a Trump rally chanting, ‘Send her back.’”
She continues in the video, "My faith teaches that the testing of our beliefs is hard, but it can ground us with purpose." The candidate's message is described as inclusive and decidedly liberal. The article then says, "Centering her left-leaning political message on faith is a bold strategy that experts say is not only attracting accolades from liberals and conservatives alike, but also hinting at a new faith-fueled trend among Democrats running for office in the deep south."
A couple of interesting questions here. How exactly is that going to work? It might work at some level amongst certain constituencies in the American south, but how in the world is any candidate with this kind of message going to attract the kind of overtly secular voters that we are told, we were just told, are the future of the Democratic party.
But I was really interested in finding out what “broadly defined” meant in that earlier paragraph, and that shows up and in a most interesting way. Later in the article we read this: "Like many Democrats, Amico was careful to note that her embrace of religion is not a call for others to do the same. She noted that her husband is an atheist and that her bigger concern is calling out basic right and wrong." Well, now we understand something about what “broadly defined” meant. It meant that this candidate, who is trying to identify as religious, is having to make the argument that she doesn't mean that anyone else should, and that includes her own husband who she apparently proudly declares to be an atheist.
But then we turned to a final report, this one by Kelsey Dallas at Deseret News, that's in Utah, asking the question, where was religion during the Democratic debate? This means the third major Democratic debate, the one involving the 10 candidates who qualified for that debate. She writes, "The top 10 Democratic candidates for president sparred in Houston and they talked much more about faith in government than faith in God." She continues, "Beyond one shout out to faith-based values and a short Bible verse, candidates failed to draw upon religion as they laid out their visions for a better future, the lack of faith talk was notable," says the reporter, "in light of recent drama surrounding the Democratic party's relationship to God." This article cites the fact that there are many who want the Democrats to win next November who are criticizing Democratic leaders and candidates for failing to reach out to religiously identified American voters.
But when you put this article in the context of what we've just been looking at with all the various reports going back to the FiveThirtyEight, then what you come to understand is that these candidates are very aware that they face a danger. If they are as explicitly secular as their party is now trending, then they're going to turn off a lot of voters they need. But on the other hand, if they even give a tip of the hat to religion, much less to any kind of specific Christian identity, then they run the danger of scaring off the young secular voters they see as the crucial future of their party.
This article, coming from Utah, also points to the fact that if you just look at the numbers right now, even in 2019, nine out of ten American voters indicate they have some religious identity, they have a specific religious affiliation, they do not identify themselves as secular. So here's the interesting question. Even as the trend over the last several decades is abundantly clear, where will this picture settle out as we look to the future? Every indication is that we are looking at a deeper level of partisan intensity. We're looking at an ever wider political divide, and behind that is an even wider worldview divide, and behind that is an even wider theological divide. The theological divide is most foundational, and that's a big story anyway you look at it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find 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 Edinburgh, Scotland, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.