(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 23 November 2016.)
Since the 1990s, Americans have become more deeply divided and angry with each other than at any time since the 1850s. Now, as then, distrust of leaders and institutions is widespread.
The origins of the current deep divide date to the religious intensification that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when church membership began to grow across all denominations. This soon evolved into a growth in the enthusiastic religions, which has cut deep into the membership of mainline churches and drawn many non-church persons into the fold.
Membership in the principal mainline Protestant churches of America has declined by 25 percent since the mid-1960s, while that of enthusiastic churches (such as Pentecostal, Adventist, and neofundamentalist), and also reborn Catholics and Mormons has nearly doubled.
Alongside the growth of enthusiastic religions, their political presence has grown. First was the Moral Majority which rallied believers in enthusiastic religion around opposition to abortion, reestablishing prayer in the schools, and the elimination of pornography. It proved to be too rigid theologically and too focused on the abortion issue to have broader appeal. Tarred by scandals, it collapsed in 1989.
In the 1990s, a broader movement called the Christian Coalition emerged that adopted a less dogmatic and more issue-oriented approach to institutional reform.
The religious Right, as it became known, successfully broadened its coalition to include more members of mainline churches, Jews, and blacks. There was also increasing responsiveness from the Democratic Party, although not enough to forestall the rise of the Right.
Polls in 1982 revealed that those who identified themselves as believers of enthusiastic religion (about one-third of adults) split their vote fairly evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates. But by 1994, only 26 percent continued to vote Democratic, while 74 percent voted Republican.
In the 1996 and 1998 elections, the Republicans maintained control of both houses of Congress forcing Democratic President Clinton to change both his rhetoric and certain policies to increase his party’s appeal to born-again Christians. But the majority of Democrats in Congress resisted Clinton’s strategy.
Democratic resistance further stiffened under President Obama, whose apparent strategy was to consolidate ethnic minorities around social liberal values and ride on the future demographic advantage of the Hispanic vote. Rather than unite large parts of both ethical camps around such issues as curtailing pornography and violence in the media and abolishing state-sponsored gambling, Obama successfully backed the bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
Despite Obama’s two-term electoral victory, the political realignment of the Republicans with the Christian right continued to strengthen. The Trump victory will likely consolidate it further and promises to make the Republicans the dominant party for a generation – meaning it may win most national elections by narrow margins.
Religious movements have always been central in American political history. While the founding fathers envisioned a nation founded on principles that proclaim all individuals equal with equal liberties and rights, it has been the churches that have played a key role in interpreting that vision.
Evangelical churches promote popular democracy partly because they are based on the principle that the congregation rather than the hierarchy is the pivot of church government. They also emphasize the responsibility of each individual to study and interpret the Bible.
Over the course of American history, churches and religious revival movements have also reflected the social concerns of people in the wake of many changes. They were in the forefront of early social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery, the right of trade unions to strike, the use of state and federal fiscal policy to redistribute income from the rich to the poor, the right of women to vote, Prohibition, and the provision of universal primary education.
However, many social ills are still prevalent in cities today: family breakdowns, drugs, street violence, and sexual aggression. This has created a new belief that social ills cannot be remedied by social policy alone, especially if it encourages a culture of dependency. Traditional family values, self-responsibility, and moral character are increasingly perceived as missing in the moral development of the country’s citizens.
At the heart of the turmoil today in American politics is a cultural and moral crisis precipitated by confrontation of the social liberal and economic progressive ideas embraced by the Democratic Party and social conservative and economic liberal ideas of the Republican Party across an ideological and ethical chasm. Each provides a different narrative of what ails America, and each offers a different solution. This is what is dividing America and its two political parties.