Politics, Partisanship, and Christianity

Jonathan Merritt reflects on 33 years of the organized Christian Right in an essay on The Atlantic. He asks, “What have we learned?” His response:

First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as “too political.” Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.

Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture. When the religious right formed, conservative Christians were energized around restricting abortion and same-sex marriage, reducing the size of government, and protecting religious freedom. More than a quarter-century later, these same debates innervate the movement. Little progress has been made despite their best efforts, and an increasing number of individuals now recognize the religious right strategy has largely been a failure. The irony of this turn of events is that Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts — not just the halls of power.

An interview with Sociologist of Religion Robert Wuthnow, who has recently published Red State Religion:

One way to think about that is that religion and politics is often described by academics and journalists as a kind of knee-jerk reaction: that people are driven by ideology so much that they lose sight of their own self-interest. What seems to be happening in Kansas (and I guess in a lot of places right now in the 2012 election) is that yes, ideology influences people but it doesn’t totally drive their politics or their religion. They are thinking locally: what’s good for us, for our family, how can we make our life better, those sorts of things. In some ways that may involve moral issues; in other ways it may involve economic issues. It may matter a lot in terms of who they vote for, or it may not matter much at all. And that’s what we see in the history of religion and politics in Kansas.

He seems to confirm what Kathy Cramer Walsh has discovered in Wisconsin:

But Walsh, a lifelong Wisconsin resident whose parents were public school teachers, says she first ran up against the public/private divide when visiting a community in northwestern Wisconsin during the spring of 2008.

She says that a group of loggers, most of whom were self-employed, believed that while schoolteachers may work hard during the year, they have cushy positions. Among the perks: great benefits, health care, summers off and an annual salary of about $50,000 a year. “Nobody in this town makes anywhere near $50,000,” says Walsh, paraphrasing comments she heard. “At the lumber mill, they’re making $20,000 and losing their fingers!”

Walsh says when she probes further, asking why people see a public employee/private employee divide and not a rich/poor divide, she gets stares of disbelief.

It seems to come down to what is tangible and what can be controlled. Private-sector workers, many of whom are struggling, perceive that a large portion of their taxes are going to pay for the salaries of public workers. A cut to public-employee wages and benefits would, at least in theory, mean lower taxes.

But these same people don’t see themselves as having any control over the salaries and benefit packages of CEOs in the private sector, says Walsh. Moreover, they don’t really see anything wrong with top executives making big bucks.

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