Why it still pays to chase the US religious vote
Sydney: Religion could play a significant role in an increasingly polarised conversation about faith in US public life, but will it shape the 2024 election?
As the US Republican Party heads into yet another primary season dominated by Donald Trump — despite his multiple criminal indictments — there is a repeated lament that “it’s not (Ronald) Reagan’s party anymore.”
Reagan described the Republican Party in the 1980s as a “three-legged stool”: an alliance of military hawks, free-market capitalists and religious conservatives.
Together, they made a formidable electoral coalition that delivered the White House to Republicans in five out of seven elections from 1980 to 2004. In 2007, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney carried a physical stool around Iowa to make the point that any Republican still needed all three legs to win.
It’s hard to describe Republicans the same way now.
Leading Republican candidates all pursue the votes of religious traditionalists but are sceptical about unrestrained capitalism and American involvement abroad.
They see major corporations as harbouring “woke” agendas and are suspicious of traditionally conservative institutions like the FBI.
Regardless of their personal beliefs, they nearly all follow the template Trump established in 2016.
It is not just that Trump has replaced Reagan as the cultural guiding light of the Republican Party. Two of the three legs of Reagan’s stool suffered serious reputational damage in the first decade of the millennium.
The Iraq War soured Americans on military adventurism in the same way the Vietnam War did a generation earlier. The Global Financial Crisis shattered Americans’ faith in the major institutions of capitalism, compounding the sense of insecurity many of them blamed on free trade deals.
The consequences of these disasters were dramatised for Republicans in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012.
Vietnam War hero John McCain, a hawk who joked about bombing Iran, was resoundingly beaten by Barack Obama. Enthusiasm about Obama faded quickly, but four years later he still handily defeated Mitt Romney, who had made a fortune in private equities and wanted deep cuts to taxation and government spending.
Trump had distrusted free trade and American military alliances for decades and was well-suited to the mood of the party in 2016. But it was less obvious how Trump, who had little familiarity with Christian scripture and a personal history as tabloid fodder, would become historically popular with the religious conservatives, who were left as the most powerful element of the Republican base.
Despite propelling presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush into the White House, religious conservatives have often felt let down by their leaders in America, where they are usually on the losing side of cultural battles even while winning political ones.
Trump promised to reverse this pattern of cultural defeat, saying he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, among other things.
Trump mght not have personally exemplified Christian piety, but he made it clear to religious conservatives that he shared the same enemies they did and would relish fighting them.
The three Supreme Court justices Trump appointed have mostly followed through on this agenda.
A few days after issuing its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, the Supreme Court handed down another decision conservative religious groups had eagerly anticipated.
A 6-3 majority found a Washington State school district had violated the civil rights of a high school football coach when it suspended him because of his routine of praying with players on the field after games.
The school district unsuccessfully argued the coach had been seeking media attention and that some children felt compelled to participate in the prayers.
The case prompted a flurry of activity in American state legislatures. Conservative activists took it as a sign that the Supreme Court would be open to allowing forms of religion in public space, especially schools, that had been off-limits for decades.
In Texas, bills allowing more Christianity in public schools included a proposal requiring the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every classroom, though that bill eventually died.
The separation of church and state is not a settled issue in America. Conservatives point out the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the US Constitution, originating with President Thomas Jefferson in 1802, who wrote about a “wall of separation between Church and State”.
Jefferson’s aspiration was not the reality of the early republic, where some states maintained established churches into the 19th century. It was not until the mid-20th century that Jefferson’s wall was truly built.
There has always been significant pushback against moves to separate church and state in the US.
Supreme Court Justices Potter Stewart in 1962 and William Rehnquist in 1985 complained about what they saw as the misinterpretation of the First Amendment through Jefferson’s metaphor.
The issue of whether prayer should be allowed in public schools was the first battle of what came to be known as the “culture wars” in American politics, ultimately unifying religious conservatives around the Republican Party, where they have been ever since.
Surveys show rapidly rising numbers of Americans identifying as non-religious. The Pew Research Founation projects that Christians might be a minority in the United States by the end of this century.
The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage convinced many conservative Christians they were already in a national minority on social issues.
Over the past decade, conservative activists have increasingly embraced the language of “religious freedom”, positioning themselves as needing protection from the encroachments of the secular majority.
They have also taken more aggressive action in states where they form legislative majorities, implementing hard-line restrictions on abortion, removing materials dealing with sexuality from schools and pushing for bans on everything from drag shows to “critical theory” in universities.
The idea of “Christian nationalism” has been getting a lot of attention in the United States, but the political structure and changing religious landscape of the country makes it unlikely it could ever be remade as an exclusively Christian nation like the one depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale.
A more likely future is one where some states assert an increasingly Christian identity in their laws and public life, while others become increasingly secular.
While this might sound like a reasonable federalist solution for a huge and divided country, the reality of American life is that its divisions are too complex to be neatly contained within state lines.
All major social issues become politically nationalised and are only resolved in national struggles, from slavery and civil rights to abortion and same-sex marriage.
There is unlikely to be a stable equilibrium on church-state issues in America for a long time, if ever. (360info.org)