Donate to RNS

How 2021 collapsed the divide between religion and politics

As religion recedes as a force in American public life, politics has co-opted faith for its own purposes.

A demonstrator carries a Bible outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(RNS) — The Year of Our Lord 2021 began with the hopeful conviction that it could not possibly be worse than the pandemic year of 2020, which this time last year I called a good year for bad religion.

Somehow, we all now know, 2021 was even worse.

Of course there were hopeful stories about interfaith cooperation, love of neighbor and resilience in the face of a continuing coronavirus pandemic. Off the front pages, believers everywhere said prayers, sang hymns and read Scripture — as they always have and always will.

But across the religious left, right and center, the dominant narratives suggested that as religion recedes as a force in American public life, it is becoming easier for political movements to co-opt faith for their own purposes. Perhaps this has long been so, but it’s astonishing to watch as the guardians of religious institutions — denominational leaders, prominent clergy and laypeople with oversight authority and responsibility — appear not only powerless to stop it, but often eager to go along.

For 40 years, Americans have debated whether conservative Christians should or could be such eager handmaidens to a pro-rich, anti-civil-rights political party. But that changed with the riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as a joint session of Congress moved to certify Joe Biden’s election as the 46th president. 

On that day, President Donald Trump, falsely and without evidence, stoked a belief that the election was stolen through widespread voter fraud. Thousands of protesters, many with ties to white nationalist groups, attended a rally at which the sitting president told them that they had the power to prevent Biden from taking office. Many of them then breached the U.S. Capitol in hopes of doing just that.

And while the Capitol rioters generally had few ties to legitimate religious institutions, Christian language and imagery were evident in the insurrection. Unmoored from congregations and clergy, these extremists often operate beneath the radar of what pollsters, scholars and pundits are able to perceive.

To their credit, many leading evangelicals who supported Trump acknowledged the reality that Biden prevailed. But the shocking numbers of reputable evangelical leaders who offered only tentative, qualified criticism of the Jan. 6 attack — and the lies that made it possible — made clear that the religious right was willing to serve much uglier political forces than we imagined previously.

In this light, the religious right’s capitulation to Trumpism seemed to show that the movement was always much more about the politics of race and nationalism than authentic religious faith. As 2021 unfolded, it became obvious that even mainstream evangelical leaders and institutions were driven by the same illiberal tendencies.

The Rev. Russell Moore, the evangelical leader who had not only opposed Trumpism but had tried to force the denomination to face its growing sexual abuse crisis, was finally forced out of his post as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. 

As he left, a flurry of statements, leaked letters and accusations pointed at the political nature of the SBC’s lackluster response to systemic racism and sexual abuse within its ranks, to the great disappointment of victims and advocates.

As the right fumed, the left fought over the meaning of its November victory. The left was haunted particularly by the fact that Trump’s losing campaign had surprisingly strong support from nonwhite voters. As the religious left prominently adds immigration and social issues to its historic advocacy for economic and racial justice, there is evidence that such causes may have finally alienated large swaths of minority Americans.

Or have other considerations simply trumped nonwhite voters’ historic commitment to the Democratic ticket? Has identity politics, the glue of the party’s educated, coastal white base, alienated the minority voters it supposedly favors?

For all its moral dudgeon, the religious left apparently has little ability to bring voters and activists into the Democratic coalition who were not already there, and it cannot deliver moderates or conservatives of any race or creed. And while religious left activism is ever more ecumenical and interfaith, political actors know by now that its leaders in the religious left cannot credibly claim to speak for countless millions — and may not speak for anyone other than themselves.

If the religious center, if we can call it that, continues to be hollowed out, the broad middle in American religion is also in decline. Recent data reveal that fewer and fewer Americans pray, attend services, identify with a religion or say that religion is important in their lives.

About a quarter of Americans are Roman Catholic. They are as polarized as Protestants and are likelier to say they seldom or never attend services. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is always eager to speak out against abortion but has struggled to address Catholic attachment to Trumpism or strongly call on the Catholic faithful to embody and support the full range of Catholic social teaching on migration, climate, economics and peace.

As the calendar turns to 2022, all these trends will only accelerate. The Supreme Court’s decision in a Mississippi abortion case is expected in June, just five months before the midterm elections. This will energize supporters and opponents of abortion rights and dramatically increase abortion’s salience as an election issue.

Religious conservatives will support Republican candidates regardless of how shamelessly they promote Trump’s lies and delusions. If history is any guide, Democrats will lose their grip on Congress next November and the party will debate where and how unpopular or extreme social-issue positions torpedoed its razor-thin House and Senate majorities.

A year from now, we will be in largely the same place in how we analyze religion and politics: a Republican Party awash in Christian nationalism and an increasingly nonreligious (anti-religious?) Democratic Party stunned at its ability to lose and lose badly.

We used to assume that religion was a fixed, core identity and that political preferences flowed from bedrock religious commitments. But scholars increasingly find that the causal arrow runs the other way: In a country with polarized choices and decreasing religious salience, politics is a foundational social identity and Americans bring their religious identities and beliefs in line with what their party preaches.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political strategist based in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)