We are all the Secular Right now, but what does that mean?

donald_trump_august_19_2015_croppedThis blog began in the fall of 2008 somewhat on a lark. This was during a period when the American Right was beholden in many ways to the Religious Right. By “many ways,” I mean more in symbolics and rhetoric than reality. The reality is that conservatism in the 2000s was a “three legged stool” where the Religious Right was fed rhetorical “red meat,” while the neocons were ascendant and the economic conservatives achieved some gains (and losses).

But the power of religion in conservatism was such that genuflection to Christian values and identity was normative, even among the mostly secular Washington and New York conservative intelligentsia. Of course, there were always libertarians, but the libertarian position within the Right has always been one of tactics rather than strategy. It was not controversial being a libertarian and an atheist. What was more atypical was a non-libertarian conservative admitting their atheism. In 2008 George F. Will declared he was an agnostic. By 2014 he was admitting to be an atheist. Will’s transformation from bashful to agnostic on the Colbert Report in 2008 to sanguine atheist in 2014 illustrates a change in American culture: secularization entered a new phase in the 2000s, and a much larger proportion of Americans are no longer Christian in belief. In the United States over the past generation the number of Americans who have “no religion” has gone from one out of ten to one out of four.

As if to portend these trends in Barack Obama and Donald J Trump you will have two presidents who are cultural Christians at best. Though many assert that Obama is an atheist at heart, I suspect that despite his lack of belief in most of the supernatural elements of the religion he does have some rationalization for why he is a Christian. Trump’s position is different, as he is from a Protestant background by heritage, and it seems likely that that heritage is what he would lean on to assert his Christian bona fides. But Trump is arguably as religiously disinterested in the confessional aspects of Christianity as Obama, as adduced by his public comments, as well as his sanguine attitude toward the conversion of his daughter Ivanka to Orthodox Judaism (Eric Trump was married under a chuppah, as his wife is Jewish, while Donald Trump Jr.’s wife has a Jewish father, though she does not seem religiously Jewish as evidenced by her wearing a cross at her wedding).

Trump’s attitude toward religion is not the aspect that it is notable. Many Republican politicians are not particularly religious in private. What is notable is that he made no attempt to not be transparent in his lack of strong religiosity when appealing to religious voters. Trump’s appeal to religious voters in the Republican party was that he would defend their rights and interests, not that he was truly one of them.  The Religious Right then has become part of the interest group constellation of the Republican Party, but it is not calling the shots on the optics and symbolic rhetoric in the same manner as before.

What is the future then? I don’t think anyone knows. The election was a close one, and trends don’t help. Social-cultural systems are sensitive, and nonlinear. Expect chaos before we settle into a new system and stationary state.

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1 Response to We are all the Secular Right now, but what does that mean?

  1. Narr says:

    Good question. I was assured by some of my leftie friends that Obama is really an atheist, as if his obvious (to them) high IQ settled the matter. (I think he is a shallow and not-very-well educated narcissist, myself.)

    I don’t know about Trump, except that he is even shallower, less-well-educated, and more narcissistic.
    I think the religious folks who voted for him are projecting onto him just like the secular lefties projected on to Obama.

    The unfortunate trend that links the two, IMO, is the gradual perversion of a role of secular authority into something like an American pontifex maximus–the President, whatever his or her actual belief, is seen by many as a vessel of spiritualism . . . which sort of misunderstanding always ends badly.

    So, while a minority of the populace becomes steadily more secular by some measures, the view of the Presidency seems to me to be evolving the other way. And anyone who seeks the office must pander to those yearnings.

    I do give Obama some credit for daring to list Americans who don’t believe as a legitimate part of the national life. I have my doubts that Trump can do the same, or could even see any point to doing so.

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