What's Tony Thinking

Backlash Against the Religious Right?


Can part of what’s going on in American religion be attributed to a backlash against the Religious Right?

University of Connecticut sociologist Ruth Braunstein thinks so. In a recent article in The Guardian, Braunstein reports on research that tells her that the increasingly politicized Religious Right is driving a four-pronged backlash.

Many ascribe the “rise of the Nones,” i.e. those who have no religious affiliation, to the Religious Right. “If that’s religion, count me out.” Braunstein believes that this backlash hasn’t only contributed to the growth of the Nones, but is expressed in three other ways.

One is the number of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” This group is still into religion as spirituality, just not “organized religion.” Then there are, according to Braunstein, two other expressions of the backlash, which appear to be in tension with one another. One is a persistent Religious Left. Another is liberal religious people who don’t want their faith politicized, that is, turned into a vehicle for partisan politics. Here’s Braunstein:

“Backlash, after all, can take many forms. The kind of backlash that has led people to disavow religious affiliation in general is what I call a “broad” form of backlash. In this form, backlash against a radical form of religious expression leads people to distance themselves from all religion, including more moderate religious groups that are viewed as guilty by association with radicals. This is a common pattern within social movements, where moderates often worry that radicals will discredit their movement as a whole.

“But this is not the only plausible form that backlash can take. One can also imagine a narrower, more targeted, backlash against the religious right itself, in which people do not abandon religion altogether but rather migrate to more moderate or otherwise appealing religious groups. Evidence of this form of backlash abounds. It can be found in rising numbers of people who identity as “spiritual but not religious”. These individuals are not rejecting religion altogether; they are embracing a new category of religiosity, one viewed as unpolluted by its association with radical conservative politics.”

Watching the numbers and trends with regard to religious affiliation and participation in our society is more than a cottage industry in America. Studies regularly report trends, some of which seem to contradict others. But you could make an argument that what’s amazing, given all the headwinds, is the persistence of religious belief and participation.

That said, I’m sure that Braunstein and others of her sociological guild are right in thinking that many are turned off by the Religious Right. Politicization is part of it. Scandals, see Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University, would be another. Falwell was quoted in a recent Vanity Fair article saying, “People think I’m religious. I’m really not.” Thanks for clearing that one up, Jerry!

Huston Smith, a great scholar of the world religions, had in right in his 2005 book, The Soul of Christianity. Smith wrote,

“Conservative Christians, commonly tagged as fundamentalists, incline toward a biblical literalism that is unworkable because it ignores the contexts that give words their meaning . . . and (they) are in constant danger of slipping into disastrous political agendas . . .

Worse yet, they are untrue to Jesus. Jesus was invariably generous, whereas fundamentalists tend to be narrowly dogmatic and chauvinistic.” (emphasis added)

Smith did not, however, stop there. He follows that assessment of conservative Christians with these words about my team.

“Liberal churches, for their part, are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically theistic world-view to work within, they have nothing to offer their members  except rallying cries to be good.”

There are been changes, of course, since Smith’s 2005 remarks. The Religious Right has become even more politicized, hooking its wagon to the lodestar of American nationalism. The most interesting trend, one cited by Braunstein is that “evangelical” has morphed so much that it has become a political identifier without any religious content at all.

I see hope, as I’ve noted before, in those efforts in the world of the liberal church to do what Smith counsels, i.e. to recover a robust theistic world-view and a sense of transcendence, of a greater reality that exceeds and encompasses our everyday affairs. I see/ hear that in a variety of places including the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast crowd with whom I will soon begin a webinar based on the book, UnApologetic. Still time to sign up for the free webinar, which begins February 7 and continues on Mondays for eight weeks. See registration link at right.

Categories: Uncategorized