When President Obama told a press conference in Turkey in April that, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation,” the usual suspects reacted in the expected ways.
Those of us who value the ideal of our people’s civil rights and privileges not tied to any one religion or another appreciated his follow-up: “We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”
The political and religious right-wing, of course, went bananas. No need to rehearse that here.
Their predictable expression of well-practiced outrage – OUTRAGE – is all over the airwaves and Internet along with their repetition of bad history about the country’s supposed foundation on the Ten Commandments and the “Christianity” of our Founding Fathers. Those claims have been debunked again and again.
The problem is that, whether or not we consider it our foundational ideal, the country actually has been a culturally Christian nation. Christian symbols, institutions, and language have dominated discourse and thinking in the same way white, heterosexual, upper-class, and male have been privileged culturally. More than 62% of Americans still think the US is a Christian nation.
Members of other religions know how they have to keep up with, and react to, this dominance. The Jewish community understands how important Hanukkah has had to become in reaction to Christmas, which US courts have judged a cultural, not religious, holiday.
Yet, we also know that when anyone happens to point out the privilege someone participates in, a usual reaction is the feeling of victimization by the person from the privileged group, the rehearsal of how they have been individual victims of some individual not in their group. That’s what’s been happening to challenge those who are reacting in fear of loss of Christian privilege with resentment and revenge. And they’ve been responding for decades as if they are the victims of everything (“culture”) in the US.
The cover of the April 13th Newsweek offered no comfort for the fearful when it announced: “The decline and fall of Christian America.” The story reports that the current 62% in the Newsweek poll who think the US is Christian continues a decline from 69% last year and 71% in 2005.
There are other figures that bother the privileged. People who are agnostic, atheist or report no religion are up 3 points to 11%. 6% describe themselves as following non-Christian religions. 68% said religion is losing influence in American life, compared with 58% in 2000 and 39% in 1984.
Those who claim to have “old-fashioned values about family and marriage” have also decreased 13 points since 1987 to a current 74%.
In addition, the Gallup organization released the results of polls in 139 countries conducted between 2006 and 2008, concluding that: “in countries where a higher percentage of citizens say religion is important in their daily lives people are also more likely to say that their communities are not good places for ethnic or racial minorities to live.”
In the midst of all this, out-going guru of the extreme right wing religious/political institution Focus on the Family, James Dobson delivered a farewell speech to his staff that reflected all of this, especially his distain for Obama’s stunning political victory as the triumph of evil. “We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”
“Humanly speaking” in right-wing religious speak, of course, means the evidence in front of us. But evidence neither deters nor softens the message of those dedicated to ensuring that America fits their sectarian religious image at the expense of anyone (the evil) in their way.
These are the people, after all, who use words like “tolerance” and “multiculturalism” as equivalents to satanic. So, Dobson and his ilk are not saying the culture wars are over. They’re not surrendering.
For the right-wing, they can’t. And that’s the most important point for us to understand.
They need psychologically to see the US as a Christian country. That’s why it’s important to repeat and support the writers who defend the inaccurate history about the founders wanting it to be so.
They need to remake the US into a culture that enforces their view of the Kingdom of God. That’s why they’re still working on it against all odds.
This puts them out of touch with the ultimate concern of their founders. In everything ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, there’s nothing about his concern that the Emperor of Rome be a follower. There’s nothing in any of the New Testament about any effort to turn the Roman Empire into a Christian nation.
The basis for all this isn’t in Jesus or the Apostle Paul but in the need to feel, to be confirmed, to convince themselves, and to impress others, that they are right. Instead of “narrow is the way,” the so-called culture wars are based on the need to be in the majority in order to confirm their righteousness.
The rise of the political activities of the religious right-wing in the last five decades is rooted in their fear of being wrong because they were being marginalized by the culture. Faith in their god wasn’t enough.
Used by political and economic conservatives who otherwise laughed at them, I argue in When Religion Is an Addiction, they were ripe for the picking. Soon they could picture themselves as mainstream and, thus, vindicated.
It took too much faith to wait any longer for the constantly postponed Second Coming. Marching and rallying, and legislating against all that threatened them helped them cope.
So, even though the news, for the religious right-wing isn’t good, it’s not evidence that their viciousness, manipulations, expenditures, and stealth tactics are over. In fact, they’re likely to become more desperate.
As we watch the movie of the brave knight fighting the dragon, it’s when the beast seems to be slain that we know there will be at least one more swing of its powerful tail. And to assume the dragon is dead would be to miss its most potent blow.
Beware. 62% still think this is a Christian nation.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.