Conservative Culture Sows the Seeds of its Own Demise

Millennials, who will be the decisive cohort in future national elections, are less religious than previous generations and less likely to respond to social wedge issues. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are voting in record numbers in the Republican primaries — in fact, they make up half of Republican voters — because the GOP today is older, more conservative, and more reactionary than ever. That’s the opposite direction from America at large:

The link between religion and politics that’s motivated many Republican primary voters this year is far less prevalent in public attitudes more broadly: Instead nearly six in 10 Americans express disinterest in whether a presidential candidate shares their religious views.

More than six in 10 in this ABC News/Washington Post poll also say political leaders should not rely on their religious beliefs in making policy decisions. And fewer than four in 10 say the country has gone too far in separating church and state; rather there’s been a modest increase since the 1990s in the number who see too much mixing of religion and government.

As I keep saying, cultures in decline tend to fight harder to maintain privilege and power rather than adapt to a changing environment. The oncoming electoral disaster at the heart of right wing reactionary fears — one in which educated young people, women, and minorities outnumber the “good” white Christian folk — is a creature of their own making. A Barna Group attitudes survey in 2007

show(ed) that 16- to 29-year-olds exhibit a greater degree of criticism toward Christianity than did previous generations when they were at the same stage of life. In fact, in just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a “good impression” of Christianity.

One of the groups hit hardest by the criticism is evangelicals. Such believers have always been viewed with skepticism in the broader culture. However, those negative views are crystallizing and intensifying among young non-Christians. The new study shows that only 3% of 16 – to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals. This means that today’s young non-Christians are eight times less likely to experience positive associations toward evangelicals than were non-Christians of the Boomer generation (25%).

The research shows that many Christians are innately aware of this shift in people’s perceptions of Christianity: 91% of the nation’s evangelicals believe that “Americans are becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity.” Among senior pastors, half contend that “ministry is more difficult than ever before because people are increasingly hostile and negative toward Christianity.”

Evangelicals have been increasingly desperate about this trend, and this fear of a changing American social environment explains why a majority of white evangelical voters in Mississippi say Obama is a Muslim. Having steeped for decades in propaganda about “secular humanism” taking over the country, the white evangelical voter is merely grasping for a shorthand way to express what they already believed before Obama was elected.

Of course, the echo chamber of conservative media sources amplifies this fear at all times. Little wonder, then, that the conservative movement has fixated on the president as symbol of everything wrong with the country. This was especially pronounced in Mississippi and Alabama last week:

(A)round 4 in 10 in both states cited the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in the November election as the main quality they are seeking in a candidate. Given four choices, that has been the top factor named in every state so far.

But that is not the only quality GOP voters crave. The three other options — having a strong moral character, being a true conservative and having the proper experience — when taken together attract more than half of the voters in every state so far.

Tea parties were supposed to represent a new conservatism, one more concerned with fiscal austerity than abortion. Republicans have doubled-down on their determination to block birth control access, proving the “new” conservatism is in fact an ancient one obsessed with fighting culture wars it has already lost:

“We all agreed that this seemed like a throwback to 40 years ago,” said Ms. Russell, 57, a retired teacher from Iowa City who describes herself as an evangelical Christian and “old school” Republican of the moderate mold.

Until the baby shower, just two weeks ago, she had favored Mitt Romney for president.

Not anymore. She said she might vote for President Obama now. “I didn’t realize I had a strong viewpoint on this until these conversations,” Ms. Russell said. As for the Republican presidential candidates, she added: “If they’re going to decide on women’s reproductive issues, I’m not going to vote for any of them. Women’s reproduction is our own business.”

At Vanity Fair, contributor Todd Purdum quotes President Jimmy Carter at the end of a piece in which he declares the South is “lost” to Democrats. Purdum could just as easily be describing Southern Illinois or Southern California as all of Alabama, though, because the Southern Strategy was never aimed at a single region of the country:

“There are those who say, ‘Well, we could do it if the national party would only moderate its stands on the social issues,’” Carter said. But that would require the national Democratic Party to put at risk the support of its core liberal constituencies in the hope of winning crossover voters it might never get in the end.

Carter sees one other possibility: If a devastating economic collapse had occurred long enough before the 2008 election to make it clear that Barack Obama had nothing to do with it, “it might have been possible that a national Democrat could have re-taken this election now—if, of course, that national Democrat had been willing to run a Teddy Rooseveltian campaign against the ‘malefactors of great wealth,’” he said. But he added, “The fact is, denial is just an incredible thing when it comes to white Southerners being able to fake themselves out on the economy, and to focus on what it is they actually needed, as opposed to what they resent.”

Indeed, the defining problem of evangelical political Christianity is that the resentment defining their movement is so unlike their Christ. More than one demographic sees this hypocrisy, and does not excuse it. The consequences will not be confined to politics, either. Because evangelicals have linked their politics so closely to their faith for so long, the two will never be uncoupled in the minds of a growing number of Americans.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/gevansbham Greg Evans

    REALLY GREAT PIECE. Thanks, Matt. Sharing!