(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal 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. Torrents of speeches and news stories have appeared with one group accusing the other of violating their liberty, livelihood, or principles. The issues may be different today, but the hatreds and fears are equally intense, with racial and ethnic clashes in the cities, terrorist confrontations, a fracturing of political parties, and charges of corruption everywhere: in government, in churches, in businesses, and in bedrooms.
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. However, in more recent decades only the enthusiastic religions have grown rapidly, cutting deep into the membership of the mainline churches and drawing 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) has nearly doubled. Among certain enthusiastic denominations, such as the Mormons, membership has quadrupled.
By the end of the 1980s, there were about 60 million adherents representing about one-third of the electorate. Although often identified with the rapidly growing charismatic denominations, the movement is far wider. It includes about 20 million persons in the churches of the mainline Protestant denominations, 6 million Catholics (reporting a born-again experience), and nearly 5 million Mormons.
Alongside the growth of enthusiastic religions, single-issue movements also began to emerge, in particular the right-to-life movement.
These movements initially were seen as zealous minority efforts far removed from the mainstream of political life. But in 1979, the Moral Majority emerged with a bid to become the vehicle through which believers in enthusiastic religion could unite on a national program of political restructuring that included opposition to abortion, reestablishing prayer in the schools, and the elimination of pornography. The Moral Majority had significant success in shifting intensely religious voters from the Democratic to the Republican column during the 1984 elections, however, it was 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 was more clearly focused on politics, more willing to compromise on key issues in the interest of extending the coalition, theologically more flexible, and better connected with the mainline churches. It adopted a less dogmatic and more issue-oriented approach to institutional reform.
An example of this approach was its decision to make the traditional family its main coalition cause above abortion. It also reached out to economic conservatives by integrating tax reductions and smaller government into its social program, linking these issues to principles of individual responsibility.
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 the 1980s 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 in 1982. But by 1994, only 26 percent continued to vote Democratic, while 74 percent voted Republican. They had shifted their allegiance to the Republicans.
A shift of this magnitude for a presidential election is equivalent to a loss of about 7 percent of the Democratic constituency and a gain of the same amount for the Republicans (i.e., a fourteen-point spread in favor of the Republicans). In addition to this shifting allegiance, the share of ballots cast by believers of enthusiastic religions has increased, which, of course, further increases their influence. Consequently, the Republican Party has become the principal vehicle for the political reforms sought by leaders of the spiritual awakening.
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 of courting white evangelicals. Ideological considerations within the Democratic Party were apparently stronger than partisan considerations.
Democratic resistance further stiffened under President Obama, whose apparent political strategy was to consolidate ethnic minorities around social liberal values and ride on the future demographic advantage of the Hispanic vote. Reforms that conceivably could unite large parts of both ethical camps were not pursued, for example, curtailing pornography and violence in the media, abolishing state-sponsored gambling, setting limits on sexual aggression, and controlling or suppressing illegal drug trafficking and use. Instead, 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. In the American political context, dominance does not imply that a party wins election after election by a large margin. Dominance means that a particular party wins most national elections by narrow margins.
Political historians have divided the American political experience into political eras. Between these political eras are elections that bring about substantial changes in the makeup of the two main opposing political parties. These are the “critical elections” that produce the “political realignments” that usher in the next political era.
Election statistics since the 1980s indicate that the United States has been in a process of political change that is to a large extent produced by trends in American religiousness. One cannot understand current political and ethical trends, or properly forecast future economic developments, without understanding the revival of religious feeling in American history and the social, economic, and political reform movements that they have generated.
If Republican dominance prevails, then history is likely to judge the Obama presidency as the end of the Democratic political era – an era that consolidated under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and whose fortune began to reverse with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Only an economic recession during the Trump presidency might provide an opportunity to slow down the Democratic decline. Reversing it will be unlikely and will depend on repeated
Republican errors and an unprecedented amount of Democratic political wisdom.
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 and continuing struggle to advance those liberties and rights, particularly evangelical Protestant churches and others that practice enthusiastic religion.
American churches and the lay movements they generated were in the forefront of early social reforms, such as 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. The greatest of all the reform movements in American history, the abolition of slavery, was for decades almost exclusively a religious movement until a number of religiously inspired Northern politicians developed brilliant tactics and strategies necessary to create a winning antislavery coalition.
American evangelical churches stand in sharp contrast to European churches, particularly in promoting popular democracy, radical social reform, and new political alignments. The main European churches are state churches: their leaders are formally confirmed, their clergy paid, and their schools subsidized by the state.
These European churches are fundamentally hierarchical in structure and the clergy’s duty is to inculcate the members of the congregations in church dogma. Despite important differences in history, doctrine, and administration, the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Churches of Europe generally legitimize the governments in power and rally popular support for their wars, laws, and other enterprises.
Not only have American evangelical churches been independent of the state and represented the majority of Protestant churchgoers, but they have often served as critics of state policy and advocates of individual rights. They have played a leading role in ending aristocratic privilege in America and were principal vehicles for drawing the common people into the process of shaping American society.
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. As a result, the congregation rather than the church hierarchy employs the local minister. This principle also means that the influence of national church organizations over a given congregation is limited to what the congregation is willing to accept.
Moreover, evangelical churches emphasize the responsibility of each individual to study and interpret the Bible, guided by a personal struggle to be cleansed of sin and become “born again”; they reject the idea that only church leaders are able to interpret the Bible.
Popular democracy has also been promoted by evangelical revivals, since many of the revivalist clergy encourage their followers to put their own struggle for salvation above allegiance to ecclesiastical authority.
Over the course of American history, churches and religious revival have been a moral voice that reflect the social concerns of people in the wake of many changes – technological advances, changes in the economic structure, and their impact on the environment, communities, families, livelihoods, liberty and equality. All of this has also changed politics and policies.
From the early 1700s to about 1875, the moral and social principle that kept the nation together was equality of opportunity. This principle accepted the inequality of income as natural but held that persons of low social rank could raise themselves – by industry, perseverance, talent, and righteous behavior – to the top of the economic and social order. It was a principle that inspired the ending of slavery and the instituting of equal political rights for all races. It took the nation to Civil War (1860-1865) and a century later to a Civil Rights Movement to finally clear the constitutional and political hurdles that stood in its way.
That principle worked well for a predominantly agricultural society. But during the last third of the nineteenth century, the scale of business rapidly increased with new technologies. This led to the loss of jobs in smaller enterprises that could not compete effectively. Urban cities became centers of corruption, crime, drunkenness, prostitution, and graft that threatened to infect the entire society. Equality of opportunity seemed to be a false promise to workers and reformers alike.
These circumstances gave rise to a new ethic whose touchstone was equality of condition rather than equality of opportunity. Greater equality of condition was to be achieved primarily by government programs that redistributed income, created the welfare state and social pensions, and regulated labor markets and businesses. Public administration and political reform were implemented to clean up government.
Although much progress has been made after a century of government-financed welfare policies, the social problems have not been remedied. Many of the social ills of the 1930s are still prevalent in cities today. Some new social ills are growing at alarming rates: family breakdowns, drugs, street violence, and sexual aggression. And 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 the social liberal and economic progressive ideas embraced by the Democratic Party and social conservative and economic liberal ideas of the Republican Party confronting each other 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.