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Claire Gordon Headshot

The Rise of the Religious Left

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There was something very befuddling about the recent campaign by the American Values Network, "Christians Must Choose: Ayn Rand or Jesus." It wasn't that the video bashed big-name conservatives for revering the atheist Ayn Rand, whose tome Atlas Shrugged is Americans' second most influential book, after the Bible. It wasn't that the American Values Network is part of a growing "Religious Left conspiracy", tangled in the tendrils of George Soros, Stalin, and radical Islam. It was that a Religious Left exists at all.

You wouldn't believe it watching the recent GOP debates, where presidential contenders (except for Ron Paul, that is) one-upped each other to prove their monopoly on God. Rick Santorum has "taken bullets" for unborn babies. Michele Bachmann isn't just pro-life for unborn people, but what do you know, pro-life for born people too.

A constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage? Almost every candidate says "ay!" "I was the coauthor of something about that!" chirped in Tim Pawlenty. "I helped author something else about that!" Newt Gingrich made sure to add. Potential candidate Rick Perry recently announced a National Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation's Challenges, a remarkable feat for the governor of a single state.

The Republican candidates may be out-liberaling Obama on foreign policy, but boy are they out-Christianing anyone who gets in their way. Listening to them, you'd be easily mistaken in thinking that religion and the right were a natural and eternal alliance, and that this alliance wasn't on a steady downward slide.

Already, the most religious groups in the US - blacks and Hispanics - lean overwhelmingly Democratic. In last year's congressional election (a crushing one for Team Blue), 60% of Hispanics and 84% of blacks expressed support for the Democratic candidate (compared with 30% and 9% for the GOP). Among non-white/Hispanic Catholics that number rises to 72% and for black Protestants, a dizzying 86%.

For most non-white Americans, the greater assistance for the poor and disenfranchised promised by Democrats trumps the more conservative strands of their faith. The current coupling of religion and Republicans is doomed by demographics. Blacks and Hispanics already make up over 20% of the American electorate, and these populations growing. Since 2006, 600,000 US-born Latinos have come of age every year.

But the greatest threat to the Religious Right are its own children. Over a quarter of Millennials (those born after 1980), and 17% of the population overall, are religiously unaffiliated. The trend of "believing without belonging" is sweeping the Western world, but in the US its particularly striking; the number hovered at 7% through the 70s and 80s, and began its upward spiral in the 90s. Today, only 18% of young people attend church on a regular basis.

Just as the Religious Right was a reaction to the libertine sixties (within four years, premarital sex went from demonspeak to leisure time), the "nones" (as Robert Putnam and David Campbell christen them) are a reaction to the Religious Right. "If religion equals Republican," write Putnam and Campbell, "then they have decided that religion is not for them."

It's not that young people have forsaken the Lord. Most consider themselves Christian and believe in life after death, but "more spiritual than religious" is the mantra of our cadre. We're also progressive, and don't think that various non-traditional family permutations are poisoning society. 70% of Millenials favor gay marriage, 94% are fine with or a fan of interracial marriage, 77% think pre-marital cohabitation is a-okay, 65% have no problem with gay couples raising children, and 73% think the world is the same or better when mothers of young children work outside the home.

So it's no wonder so many kids are skipping out on church. The religion offered to us by big-name preachers, and repackaged by conservative politicians and pundits, is wildly opposed to the values we hold dear.

It's possible that this is just a life-cycle phenomenon. As Millenials grow up, move out, get jobs, and raise the new wayward generation, church and hating on gays may become appealing.

But signs suggest that this is really a "cohort effect," a generational imprint that we'll carry through our days, just like babyboomers who grew up in the Vietnam and Watergate era, now in their mid-to-late fifties, are distinctly more Democratic than the age groups around them. Sometimes these things really stick.

By pandering to religious groups that are anti-gay and anti-immigrant, the GOP is slowly sipping cyanide. The only denominations that consistently support Republican candidates are white Evangelical Protestants (by a big margin), white Mainline Protestants (by a small margin), and white non-Hispanic Catholics (by a small margin) - all notable for being white. And aging. The Tea Party, similarly, is 79% white and only 22% of its supporters are under 35.

America will be majority non-white by 2042, according to some projections. By then, the country will also be majority born-after-1980, according to any projection. To maintain their congregations, churches need to recruit immigrants and the young, and to recruit immigrants and the young, their politics will have to shift leftward. And the Republican Party, if it's to stay the party of God, will have to follow them. If it doesn't, non-white believers and independent-minded youth will punch Dem at the ballot box and pray to the God that won't smite them for it.