Why I Am Optimistic About the Future of Christianity in America

Much has been made of the 2014 Pew report, and its finding that the numbers of Americans affiliated with churches and other religious institutions have declined.  Indeed, it often seems like the report and Pope Francis have been the two Christian-related news stories of the past four years.  It’s become popular to assume that America will soon become Western Europe, with very few people professing faith in God or going to church, and the long history of the faith becoming a distant memory.  Not surprisingly, some secularists exult at this news, and even many Christian writers seem to accept it with varying degrees of hope or pessimism.

I don’t accept that this is the inevitable future; for a number of reasons, I am more optimistic about the short-term and long-term future of the church in America than these authors are.  These reasons include:

–The very real revival we’ve seen in places that are supposed to be the most secular in the country, like New York and Boston, led by urban ministers like Tim Keller and others.

–The efforts by people like Jim Wallis, the Rev. William Barber, and Pope Francis to separate the association between Christianity and conservatism that many people clearly have in their minds; Pope Francis, in particular, has demonstrably increased interest in his denomination, especially in Europe.

–The Together rally in July of 2016, which brought over 100,000 people to the National Mall with relatively little promotion or publicity, and in which members of many different sects and denominations participated (and continue to participate).

–The fact that the vast majority of people in the country (at least 85% to 90% in every poll taken on the subject) tell pollsters they believe in God, across all age groups (including millenials), and a solid majority in all age groups continue to be involved in an organized church as well.  Attendance figures also remain constant, with at most a slight decline; depending on how you measure it, something between one in 3 and 1 in 4 Americans attends church regularly, a number little changed since the 1950’s.

There are more “nones,” as we all know, but they are still well short of a majority.  (A more recent 2016 report, also by Pew, actually shows a higher number of people attending religious services more often than they did in the past, at 27%, compared with the 23% that attend less often than they used to.)

Granted, the 2016 election stands to blunt all these gains, since it laid bare the hypocrisy of so many white Evangelicals through their willingness to vote for one of the least Christian candidates of all time. That said, there are early reports that Donald Trump’s electoral victory may have inspired more people to go to moderate and liberal churches, so this may end up being something of a wash.  Like many people, I am very bothered by Trump’s large following among Christians, but it is too early in Trump’s tenure to know what long-term effect is going to have on religious adherence, and the trend of fewer people affiliating with a church began well before Trump took office.  (It’s also worth noting that according to the same Pew report, disagreement with the pastor or the church’s philosophy is a reason, but not one of the main reasons, people change or leave a house of worship; practical considerations are the main reasons.)

None of this is to say that less interest in faith (especially among the Millennial generation) isn’t a problem for those who care about it, or that it should be ignored.  That said, the beginning of any solution is hope, and I share my views to do what I can to spread that hope.

It may be counterintuitive, but I should add that liberals, including secular ones, should not hesitate to embrace this idea and spread it.  The religious right likes the idea of Christianity as a rapidly shrinking minority; it lets them paint a picture of themselves as persecuted martyrs, and helps create a circle-the-wagons mentality.  Good news about the future of their faith in their country undermines these arguments.

(I should add that I am not the only writer making these kinds of arguments; I give a hat tip to Ed Stetzer  and Emma Green, among others.)

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Donald. Trump. Did. Not. Win. The. Popular. Vote.

We need to say it loudly, again and again and again.

Amazingly, there are still Washington reporters who believe that Trump’s presidency is the result of a huge groundswell of popular will. They need to be called on this every time they claim it.

The truth is that not only did Trump not win the popular vote, but his popularity has never reached 50%, and he remains the least popular president in modern polling. (The closest he got was shortly after his inauguration, when his ratings did approach 50%; the current uptick in his popularity, for all the hype it has gotten, is still well under 50%.) All this can easily be verified on Pollingreport.com, Realclearpolitics.com, or any number of other polling list sites.  The strong success that Democrats have had, again and again, in special elections all over the country since last January attests to this as well.

One important corollary to Donald Trump not winning the popular vote, is that statements like “Trump is America,” or “America deserves Trump,” don’t really tell the whole story.

Also, yes, it is true that far too many people did vote for Trump, and did so after dozens of revelations that made it absolutely clear that he had no business being in government at all, let alone President of the United States. It is also true that Trump is not without a base of followers, many of whom seem to be loyal to him no matter what. Those things said, we still need to keep in mind that that following is not now, and has never been, anywhere near a majority of Americans.

 

2017 Election Analysis

Writing this analysis was a real pleasure, since I started writing it about Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s resounding victory in Virginia, and was interrupted by Doug Jones’ closer, but still resounding, victory in the Senate special election in Alabama against right-wing firebrand Roy Moore.

Much has been said about African American voters’ turnout in the Heart of Dixie, and the key role it played in Jones’ victory; much has also been said about Jones’ relative success in typically Republican-voting areas, like the Birmingham suburbs. Both statements are right, and I think that this is the way it should be. I have always disliked the idea that elections are won either by turning out your side’s base, or by reaching out to people who aren’t in that base. I believe that most successful campaigns do some combination of both, and Jones certainly did that.

The Washington pundits never got tired of saying that Jones didn’t mention his connection to the national Democrats, but that doesn’t mean that Jones avoided reaching out to traditional party constituencies. He campaigned in northwest Alabama, an area relatively friendly to unions; while Moore still won that corner of the state, he significantly underperformed compared with other recent Republicans. The state chapter of the NAACP, meanwhile, performed an epic get-out-the-vote operation on the ground, and its members disproved forever the tired idea that nonwhite voters don’t participate in off-year elections.

At the same time, however, Jones made inroads into what one might expect to be his opponent’s core constituency, winning 18% of white Evangelical Protestants, which doesn’t sound like much until you compare it with the 10% that Barack Obama won in the more typical year of 2012. I am convinced that Jones’ willingness to talk openly about his religious background (his family have been members of the same Methodist church in their suburban Birmingham neighborhood for 30 years) helped him win over voters he wouldn’t have won otherwise, and that helped make the difference in a close race. That he tied his faith directly to his progressive views matters as well. (It’s a shame that the exit polls only included white Evangelicals, as if they were the only bloc of religious voters; it would be worthwhile to know the voting patterns of mainline Protestants and people of other races and faiths, especially given Jones’ status as a mainline Protestant himself.)

Speaking of Evangelical voters, much has rightly been made of the large majority of whites in that category who found themselves able to vote for a man banned from a mall after trolling it for teenagers. Less talked-about is that Jones actually won several majority-white, rural counties, including Talladega County east of Birmingham and Pickens, on the opposite side of the state. Of course, not so long ago in historical terms, plenty of rural whites in Alabama voted for Democrats; I have to wonder if there wasn’t a bit of a return to this form in these results.

The more you look at it, the more impressive Jones’ achievement was (and saying that doesn’t diminish the fact that it wasn’t just his achievement). Jones will have a challenging re-election in 2020 even if that year is favorable to Democrats, especially if the Republicans pick someone without Roy Moore’s baggage, but I think it is unwise to count him out.

Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia over GOP operative Ed Gillespie was less of a surprise, given the more competitive nature of his state. What was surprising is its accompaniment by a whole state’s worth of Democratic successes, including nearly wresting control of the state House of Delegates from the Republicans and the win by Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, the first African American candidate to win statewide since Doug Wilder in 1989. Like Jones, Northam ran a campaign that was centrist in tone but genuinely liberal in views, making it hard to argue that such a message can’t win. On the other hand, I think Northam relied more on his base than Jones did (granting that said base is larger in his state). He expanded only slightly on Hillary Clinton’s totals in Republican areas like southwestern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, but turned out the vote massively in northern Virginia and urban areas like Hampton Roads.

This is not to say that Northam didn’t reach into his opponent’s territory at all. Virginia Beach, the Commonwealth’s largest city, normally votes Republican but not by much, making it decisive in statewide elections. Northam actually carried it, perhaps reflecting his military background, which matched many residents of that city. Similarly, Chesterfield County, an affluent suburb outside of Richmond and historically a staunchly Republican and conservative municipality, actually went Democratic by a small amount. Nelson County, a rural and majority-white county near Charlottesville which Trump carried last year, still went for Gillespie, but by all of four votes.

Compared with Jones, Northam talked about his faith relatively little (although he didn’t hide it, either); he emphasized his background in the military, as a doctor, and as a resident of the Eastern Shore much more. Fairfax actually talked about his beliefs more often–and won a much closer election.

Elsewhere in the country, Democrats also did well. A special election in Washington State gave them complete control of the government there (the governor’s mansion and the two state houses). In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Democrat Phil Murphy came out on top over GOP Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. This was a widely expected victory given the unpopularity of the incumbent, Chris Christie, but Murphy’s vote total was still lopsidedly high. Bill de Blasio, the outspoken liberal mayor of New York City, also coasted to re-election, as many predicted.

More interesting was a referendum vote in Maine that required the state government to accept the Medicaid funding that Trumpist Governor Paul LePage previously refused to take; it won in most of the state, including both urban and rural areas. Referenda such as this one remind us that contrary to what they often say in Washington, there is popular support for liberal change in much of America, and it is remarkable how often voters take the opportunity to express this support when issues are voted on directly.

Lastly, it is impossible to look at these results honestly and not see in them a massive repudiation of Donald Trump. In Virginia, twice the number of voters, a full 34%, voted to express opposition to Trump as those who voted to support him (17%). In New Jersey, the percentages were even more lopsided; 11% wanted to express support for Trump, but more than double that, 28%, cast their vote in opposition to him.

Granted, in the Alabama race, Trump was not as much of a factor; in fact, more voters said their vote for Moore was an expression of support for Trump (27%) than said that their vote for Jones was to express opposition to him (19%). Still, the fact that Trump’s preferred candidate lost a year after the president won the state by over 20 percentage points cannot be dismissed.  (The exit polls I used in my research can be found here and here.)

More importantly, Gillespie, Guadagno, and Moore all ran Trump-style, fear-based campaigns, and all of them were repudiated by the electorate.  Seeing this happen gives me something I haven’t had enough of in the past year: hope for the future.

Class Acts

In 1991, when David Duke won the Republican nomination in the Louisiana Governor’s race, then-President George H. W. Bush denounced Duke’s racism, and made a point of endorsing his Democratic opponent, Edwin Edwards.

Granted, Bush was smart enough to see the long-term damage Duke could do to his party, so there was some political motivation in the decision.  Even so, I do give Bush credit in this case for showing some class, and doing the right thing for the country, rather than his party.  I was never a big fan of Bush, and I’m still not one now, but this was one instance where he made the right choice.

It says volumes about Donald Trump that when he had a chance to do the same thing in the Alabama Senate race this year, he instead chose to endorse, and campaign for, the deeply toxic candidate Roy Moore.

Not the Only Christian…

Let’s be clear about something: Roy Moore isn’t the only Christian in the Alabama Senate race, and if Roy Moore loses, it isn’t a loss for Christianity.

Two key paragraphs:

“(Doug) Jones bristles at any suggestion that Roy Moore has a special claim on morality and faith in this election. Jones has been a member of Canterbury United Methodist Church in Mountain Brook for more than 33 years, he said.

‘We have our values too,’ Jones said. ‘I go to church. I’m a Christian. I have as many people of faith that have been reaching out to me about this campaign. Because you can be an extremist. You can take everything to an extreme, and no one really wants that…They want someone who cares about all people, not just a select few…. That’s what I think the teachings of religion are, is the caring about the least of these, the caring about all people, and making sure there’s a fairness to everything.'”

Click here to help Doug Jones in his race.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local Actions

The news that the Donald Trump-run federal government was going to leave the Paris climate accord was followed almost immediately by the news that Bill de Blasio, New York’s aggressively-progressive mayor, was going to keep his city in it. Soon afterward, New York’s billionaire former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, volunteered to pay the millions of dollars the government would have owed other countries under the agreement out of his own pocket. This was followed by similar declarations by California Governor Jerry Brown, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and numerous other state and local officials. Even Bill Peduto, the liberal mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, announced his support for the climate treaty, giving a back of the hand to Trump, who said in rejecting it that he was representing “Pittsburgh, not Paris.” (Never mind that Pittsburgh didn’t vote for him and is no longer an impoverished Rust Belt city, but since when do facts matter to this President?)

I am gratified to see this, and I hope to see a lot more of it. During the nearly-half-a-century that Democrats held the Congress, Republicans championed state and local government, arguing that “government closer to the people” was inevitably better. Since achieving control of Congress and the White House, conservatives have generally been quieter about the whole primacy-of-local-government thing. Indeed, the pattern seems to have been reversed; liberal cities and counties declare themselves “sanctuary cities,” meaning that they will not cooperate with immigration authorities to remove undocumented immigrants that haven’t committed crimes. Meanwhile, Democratic-run states have led the challenges to Trump’s immigrant bans in court, and have come up with higher health, economic justice, and environmental standards on their own. A minimum wage increase to $15 per hour, of the kind advocated by grassroots movements like the Fight for $15, just passed both of the state houses in the blue state of Illinois. (The state’s conservative Republican Governor has since vetoed it, making the election of a Democratic Governor who will sign it much more likely.) The state of California is on the verge of adopting its own single-payer health system, a rebuke to Trump’s and Paul Ryan’s efforts to abolish Obamacare (and a pro-active move in its own right). My home state of Maryland overrode our Republican governor’s veto of a renewable energy bill, and may soon override another veto of a paid sick leave bill.

In a way, the advocacy for this is not new. Liberal writers like David Sirota have been pushing local advocacy since at least the Bush years of the mid-2000s. When the Obama administration seemed stymied by a hostile Republican Congress, local leaders like de Blasio, Peduto, and others like Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa stepped up to the plate. This article, which is still well worth reading, documents their successes and frustrations; as a religious liberal, I was pleased that the author also credited urban progressive churches, who were among the grassroots activists giving the politicians the inspiration and courage to make change.

Even on a worldwide issue like global warming, state and local activism can make a difference. Cities can contribute significantly to reduction in greenhouse gases; states, even more so. It is also gratifying to see small and large businesses step up to the plate as well; even the oil company Royal Dutch Shell has joined Bill de Blasio in support of the treaty.

All this said, I think it’s important not to dismiss the federal role. By definition, a huge issue like global warming requires effort at the local, federal, and global levels. Trump’s spectacularly wrong-headed decision makes dealing with this problem a lot harder, and that has to lead to planet-saving change.

Social Progress

Three times recently, I have heard people younger than me casually mention that they have a same-gender spouse (as in, a woman saying “my wife”) without attaching any particular significance to it. This strikes me as more evidence of social progress.

Boycotting D.C. On Inauguration Day

As part of the ongoing normalization of Trump, the Washington media (especially the Post) will want to make his inauguration a very big deal. They’ll want to report on huge crowds, lots of revenue for local hotels, bars and restaurants, and so on.

In light of Robert Reich’s call not to watch or stream the inaugural ceremony, I propose that those of us in the Washington, D.C. area also avoid going out to eat or drink that day, to make it harder for the media to tell this story.

Granted, this will hurt our local D.C. businesses, the majority of which oppose Trump as much as we do. I am willing to make it up to them by patronizing them a few days before, or after, Inauguration Day; I’m just going to avoid them on the day itself. I also realize that there will be people from out of town who will be there to protest, and who will be unable to take this advice.