Politics and the Destruction of Faith

But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.

—2 Peter 2:1–3

Conservative Christians are engaged in a desperate political effort to keep America the religious and traditional nation they believe it was decades ago. These very efforts are what are actually accelerating the changes that they are fighting against. Their divisive and hateful politics are driving people away from religion. According to a recent poll from Gallup, the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church, synagogue, or mosque has dropped below 50 percent. It is the first time the number has fallen below 50 percent since Gallup first asked the question in 1937 when church membership was 73 percent.

In recent years, research data has shown a profound shift in the U.S. population away from religious institutions and toward general disaffiliation, a trend that analysts say could have significant implications for politics, business, and how Americans group themselves. In 2020, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque. The polling firm also found that the number of people who said religion was very important to them has fallen to 48 percent, a new low point in the polling since 2000. For some Americans, religious membership is seen as a relic of an older generation. Gallup’s data finds that church membership is strongly correlated with age: 66 percent of American adults born before 1946 belong to a church, compared with 58 percent of Baby Boomers, 50 percent of Generation X, and 36 percent of Millennials.

Tara Isabella Burton, author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, attributes the national decline in religious affiliation to two major trends among younger Americans. First, she points to broader shifts suggesting a greater distrust of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. Some Americans are disillusioned by the behavior of religious leaders, including the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal and the strong White evangelical alignment with the former twice impeached president. The other major trend Burton describes is how people are mixing and matching various religious traditions to create their own. Many people who don’t identify with a particular religious institution still say they believe in God, pray, or do things that tend to be associated with faith. Burton said younger generations that grew up with the Internet have a different kind of relationship with information, texts, and hierarchy.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued in a recent essay for the Atlantic that what was once religious belief has been replaced by political belief in many communities. On the political right, conservative Christians focus on Trump as a political savior rather than focusing on traditional questions of morality. Christians in the Republican Party are being less defined by their faith than by a set of more narrow concerns. In a new book Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics, political scientists David Campbell and Geoffrey Layman of the University of Notre Dame and John C. Green of the University of Akron argue that the religious right’s tight embrace of politics is essentially driving people away from religious affiliation into the arms of secularism.

Over the past several decades, Americans are increasingly likely to identify as having no particular religion. Pollsters call these people “nones,” and they have been growing at a phenomenal rate. According to the Pew Forum, more than a quarter of American adults say they have no religious affiliation. Thirty years ago, that number was about five percent. The trend seems to be for the “nones” to keep growing. The number of white evangelicals is also shrinking. The Pew Forum puts their size at about 16 percent of the population, down from 19 percent a decade ago, which seems to be the reason why white evangelicals were so enamored of Donald Trump. They felt he was protecting them from being overwhelmed by modern life. From their perspective, Trump being a bully was a feature, not a problem.

Campbell and Layman tested the thesis that the right’s willingness to conflate religion and politics was driving people away from faith in general. After asking people about their religious identity, they presented them with a single story where religion and politics were closely linked. Republicans had no problem with talking about God and politics in the same breath. But for Democrats, it was a major issue. When asked again about their religious affiliation, they were found to be 13 percentage points more likely to say they had no religious affiliation. In short, the very people who are pushing religion in politics the most are ensuring that more people are hostile toward religion. That’s a high price to pay for getting three Supreme Court justices.

The Republican Party and Evangelical Christians are choosing a form of Christianity that does not follow the teachings of Christ. They have wholly rejected the characteristics of a Christian that Jesus laid out for us in the Beatitudes. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” but Republicans and Evangelical Christians have repeatedly rejected social welfare programs to help the poor (the Gospel of Matthew refers to the downtrodden, while the Gospel of Matthew refers to those in poverty). Jesus also declared, “Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.” Yet, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have denied the reality of the virus and therefore have dismissed those who mourned the loss of over half a million Americans. They have derided those who wore masks and advocated for measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, rejecting Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.” 

Republicans and Evangelicals embraced a bully for president, disregarding Jesus’ teaching that, “Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth.” They have rejected time and again assistance to those in need, denying them Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.” The religious right rejects those who believe in the actual teachings of Jesus that honor love and acceptance. Look at the comments on any progressive Christian’s TikTok, and you’ll the hatred of those who advocate love, who Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.” Republicans and Evangelicals preach divisiveness, ignoring the warnings of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.” They feel that they are the persecuted when they are the persecutors, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus warns us against people like the Republican Party and Evangelical Christians who teach hate disguised as religion. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15–20), Jesus warns of false prophets:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

The Gospels address the same point of a false prophet predicting correctly the rise of people who will use religion against others. Jesus predicted the future appearance of false Christs and false prophets, affirming that they can perform great signs and miracles, for example, in the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:5–7, 13:21–23) given on the Mount of Olives:

And Jesus, answering them, began to say: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and will deceive many. But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet…Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, He is there!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. But take heed; see, I have told you all things beforehand.

Many Democrats have been driven away from religion because of how conservatives have used against them. However, an aversion to religion is not solely a positive thing for Democrats. A significant block of Democratic voters, especially Black Democrats, are much more likely to be religious than white Democrats, 40 percent of whom are “nones.” If secular Democrats disparage religion generally, they also risk alienating believers who otherwise agree with them. There are Democrats well positioned to handle that problem. Chief among them is President Biden, a Catholic who attends Mass weekly. Another is Pete Buttigieg, who has made a point of talking about his faith. Biden and Buttigieg prove that progressives don’t have to cede religion to the Republican Party. However, we must remember what Peter said in 2 Peter 2:1–3:

But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.

For many Americans, right-wing Christians have given Christianity a bad name, enough to drive them from religion altogether. A strong counterbalance from progressive believers would show that the right doesn’t own religion enough to destroy it. We must follow what John said in the First Epistle of John. In 1 John 4:1–3, John warns those of the Christian faith to test every spirit because of these false prophets:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. 

We cannot allow the religious right to destroy Christ’s teachings. We must fight to reclaim Christianity as it was in the earliest days of the religion. The earliest Christians believed in fellowship and equality among all members. I will always believe that Jesus would have and probably did accept people of the LGBTQ+ community. Many parts of the Bible never made it into the version we see today, and through many translations, the Bible has been used as a tool of hatred and not love. This has driven so many away from their faith when the teachings of Christ should draw people into the faith, not be used to exclude those who don’t fit the narrowminded beliefs of those who use the Bible as a weapon instead of a tool.

There has always been a battle between good and evil, but Republicans, Evangelicals, and the religious right are blurring those lines. I believe that the battle today is a battle between love and hate, between acceptance and rejection, between inclusion and exclusion, and between equality and inequality. Let us fight for LOVE, ACCEPTANCE, INCLUSION, and EQUALITY of all. It is the only way to reclaim religion for God and keep it away from politicians and those who wish us harm.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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