“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
— Mark 8:36
Church attendance in our country has been falling precipitously for a long time. I’m one of those dropouts. Churches have closed and been sold for secular use. It’s become difficult to entice men and women into the calling.
Throughout the country registration in the Republican Party has also taken a nosedive. The GOP has nearly descended into third place in the total number of registrants behind Democrats and Independents.
Do you think that there’s a connection between the two downward trends, especially since the Christian right and the Republican Party became political bedfellows?
Each has its own unique reasons for drifting into states of less relevance. As for religion, polls repeatedly show that Americans are tending to state no religious preferences, younger folks are not as religious as older Americans, and more Americans tend to see fewer differences between various Protestant faiths. In other words, it’s easier to say that you are a Christian than be a Methodist, Baptist, or Lutheran, etc. and then choose to not attend church.
Why are there fewer Republicans? Simply put, the Republican Party doesn’t fit the needs of a more diverse America that also includes politically aware young people worried about their future. Reagan famously said that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left him. The reverse is now true. The Republican Party has left an ever-changing America.
So how does the joining of the Christian right and the Republican Party slowly choke both (and bleed over to churches that are not aligned with the Christian right)? Let’s go back to the Founding Fathers.
Unlike our current president, the Founding Fathers actually were geniuses. They also read books, encouraged the expression of differing opinions and paid attention to the realities around them. They lived in thirteen incredibly diverse, religious colonies. Many of the colonists had fled religious persecution in their home countries. Some created their own religious tyrannies such as those of the Puritans and Anglicans. Others became “dissenters” who were Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians and others. Catholics and Jews were present as well.
Some colonies levied religious taxes on everyone which were then paid to the one favored religion. That religion’s doctrine was incorporated into local law. Those deemed unfaithful to the dominant religion were shunned or otherwise punished. Sometimes religious dissenters were fined and physically punished by civilian magistrates who enforced religious law.
Other colonies were incredibly tolerant of the various religions. But tolerance ebbed and flowed to the extent of the religious and civil overlay that varied from colony to colony.
From this sometimes harsh, punitive and uneven intermingling of church and state came Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson, our third president, is credited as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Madison, our fourth president, is credited as the primary author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The Declaration contains generic theological references such as nature’s god, creator and supreme judge. Jefferson said that those words articulated his belief that all men were born with certain god given rights that no king could take away. Therefore, the colonies were justified in rebelling against a king who was attempting to take away those birth rights. His religious focus was at birth and not thereafter.
The Declaration, as a proclamation, created no state religion. In fact, it had no legal authority at all. It merely described Jefferson’s reasons for the colonies leaving English rule. The laws of the new America were left to the Constitution.
The Constitution is now known as the law of the land. The Preamble to the Constitution sets out six tenets to define the purposes of that law. Not one mentions anything of a religious nature. It was a secular document written to establish ground rules for the governing of the new country.
What did Madison’s Constitution say about a god, a creator or supreme judge? Nothing. Nothing at all. It did say that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”. How has that worked out?
The Constitution did not lay the foundation for, much less create, a state religion. It said that the government was instituted by men with their consent. It mentioned no higher being having a role in that process.
The 1st Amendment reinforced federal religious neutrality by saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The historical writings tell us that most of the Founding Fathers were Deists. They believed that a creator set the universe in motion but thereafter did not interfere with human affairs. There were some exceptions but having seen the oppressions of European church and state confluences, they chose to not make the same mistake in America. They did not mix church and state. Such a mixture was toxic in their experiences.
John Adams, our second president, signed the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796. It had been passed by a unanimous senate. It settled a dispute with Barbary pirates regarding shipping near North Africa in an area now known as Libya. The treaty, in relevant part, said, “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Jefferson wrote to religious leaders in 1802 that religion was between man and his god, that government acted relative to actions and not opinions, and the 1st amendment’s mention of freedom of religion erected a wall between church and state.
That intent was consistent with the views of Baptist Roger Williams who, almost sixty years earlier had said, “A hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” was necessary. Most church leaders of the time were strongly against state religions, especially leaders of those denominations that had been abused by the collusion of colonial government and the favored religion. They, again, sought religious freedom from the state and dominant churches.
Colonial religious leaders were dismissive of the suggestion that God needed the advice of politicians.
Madison, as president, vetoed bills that would have authorized the use of the federal government for the benefit of religion. He said that governments were limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions. He relied on the 1st Amendment that he had authored to justify his reasoning for keeping church and state apart.
Today the Republican Party and the Christian right ignore history and the law. When we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it. And the history that gets repeated tends to be the worst of what humankind has to offer.
The Christian right, with the aid of the Republican Party, claims that America is a Christian country, that political policy should be drafted and implemented in a manner consistent with the proclamations of the Christian right, and that anyone who disagrees with them is ungodly, unamerican, and unelectable.
So much for the writings of Adams, Jefferson and Madison, as well as a unanimous United States Senate. And the Founding Fathers only wrote in plain English. Their writings were discussed with, modified by and approved by the other Founding Fathers and the colonies to become the legal foundation of the United States of America.
But let’s not dwell on the past. It takes too much time to read. At least for some people.
What has the Republican party made of itself? What is the Christian right up to these days? And how has the conjoining of the two affected each of them?
The Grand Old Party, GOP, the party of Lincoln, my favorite president, has gone to POT, the Party of Trump, my least favorite president.
Lincoln is most famous for fighting a war to preserve the United States. Trump is infamous for using race, ethnicity and religion to divide America. And the Christian right wholeheartedly supports him.
Lincoln is known for his eloquence in expressing his vision of America. In his Gettysburg address in 1863 Lincoln stood among the fresh graves of Union and Confederate soldiers in Pennsylvania and began by saying, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Trump had a military graveyard experience, too. Last year he was in France to pay respect to Americans and others killed in World War I. It was the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war. He didn’t go to the ceremony because it was raining. Instead, he sent Gen. John Kelly to honor Americans who gave their lives for their country while fighting a long way from home in the rain, the mud, the trenches, and among the screams of the dying wounded.
But recently Trump displayed his articulate eloquence during a North Carolina rally when he said, “But you can imagine what it could have been if we didn’t have the witch hunt—you said it. You said it. I won’t say it because it’s a terrible word. So I will not say what this guy said if we didn’t have the bullshit.”
Lincoln freed American slaves through his Emancipation Proclamation. Trump accepted the support of the KKK in his run for the presidency and, as president, after a white supremacist murdered nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, said that he was sure that there were “very nice people on both sides”.
Lincoln created land grant colleges to focus on agriculture, science, the military, and engineering (I graduated from one), offered inexpensive land to people who were willing to live on it and work it, and he protected what has become known as Yosemite National Park. Trump has cut taxes for the rich and super rich, suggested reducing Social Security benefits to help pay for the massive debt he added to, and severely cut back on environmental protections. And the list goes on.
Trump didn’t start the mess our country is in. He took advantage of it and made it much worse. The Christian right has convinced Republicans to not support the Equal Rights Amendment and to reject childcare legislation for working parents. The politicians and the religionists have vilified the poor and championed the rich. Whites are favored over people of color, men over women, ignorance over science, and lies over truth.
The Newt Gingrich Contract for America morphed into the Tea Party with gay bashing, discrimination against foreigners, and climate change denying. Mormons and Catholics spent millions of dollars in California to preclude same sex marriage.
More recently evangelicals spent millions of dollars to shore up support for Judge Kavanaugh’s U. S. Supreme Court nomination. They are betting that contrary to what he suggested under oath, that he will vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade. To put it bluntly, self-described “good Christians” spent more than $5 million to put someone they believe is a liar onto the Supreme Court of the United States to do their bidding.
Billy Graham’s son Franklin toured California last year touting his support for Trump, claiming that the president is a changed man. The preacher rationalized that Trump’s lifetime of sordid living happened before he became president and, therefore, was not relevant. (Really? I believe that Trump will need an exceptional lawyer to make that case to Saint Peter at the Gates of Heaven. Of course, the lawyer would also have to be dead. Any volunteers?) Graham apparently does not read Trump’s tweets or watch his campaign rallies. Graham urged voters to vote against California’s progressive agenda.
Is it a wonder that a majority of Americans look at the union of the Christian right and the Republican Party with the antipathy and distrust that righteously flows from hypocrisy?
I do not condemn religion. We all have neighbors who welcome everyone into their churches, provide food, clothing and other help to those in need, and by their words and deeds demonstrate compassion. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is undeniably a worthy credo to live by. And individual Americans should feel comfortable in voting their conscience.
It’s the holier-than-thou Christian right and their political action committees joining with the hypocritical Republican Party that is problematic. And whatever negative reactions are generated by the Christian right’s devilish conduct bleeds over to other churches whether they deserve it or not. One can’t tell the difference between the churches from the outside looking in. The Christian right gives all American religions a bad name.
Former president, Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian, is quoted as saying,” When a group of Christians try to impact through government our beliefs on others as superior, that subverts the basic constitutional prohibition concerning separation of church and state. And when we try to use the federal government to intercede in religious affairs, it inherently weakens the unique character of Christ’s kingdom.”
Has church attendance and Republican registration dropped because the Christian right and the GOP/POT are joined at the hip? I don’t really know but I believe it to be so. I certainly don’t see the upside for either here. Americans make important life decisions based on emotions at first impression.
If you are a person of color, if you are concerned about the harmful effects of climate change, if you believe that all men and women are created equal under the law, if you believe that America’s past, present and future are intrinsically linked with immigrants, if you believe that gays should be able to use marriage to screw up their lives just like the rest of us (don’t read into this: I’m happily married), if you believe that our national focus should be on poverty, homelessness, the hungry, and education rather than feeding more money to the rich, and if you believe that we are all God’s children, then you most likely do not support evangelical Christianity or the anti-Christ Trump and the Republican Party that marches to his tweets. Therefore, church attendance and Republican registrations have to take a hit.
Personally, I don’t need to walk that road. It’s much simpler for me. As an American who loves reading history and as a former trial lawyer/trial judge who was required to know the law, the analysis is rather simple.
Our founding fathers, secular and religious, created a United States of America that clearly separated church and state.
Any political party and religion that ignores and disrespects our history, laws and moral code is driven by people who themselves should be ignored and condemned. There is no profit in it. They have lost their souls. And there is no political redemption.
— Charles A. Wieland,
Retired Madera Superior Court judge