American Politics Needs More Religion

A good dose of it.

You might cringe upon reading this. Americans–religious and irreligious–hold separation of church and state dear to their hearts, and they should. But we must recognize that politics is not the state. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “state” as follows:

The supreme civil power or government of a country or nation; the group of people collectively engaged in exercising or administering this.

I certainly believe in separating religious institutions and the state. But American politics is not a governing body. It is a political culture–one that, today, leaves many dissatisfied and disengaged. Working-class men and white coastal elites spurn one another as ignorant and brainwashed, and those stuck in between feel depressed by the vitriol they see on both sides.

How can we heal this frustrating political climate?

More and more numbers point to extreme polarization between political parties. But I want to hone in on another way to divide American politics: by religious participation. By drawing the lines by religiosity rather than party, we are able to demarcate the stereotypical polarizers on both sides of the aisle.

True to the Christmas spirit, I have been reading Arthur Brooks’s Who Really Cares (2006), a book about the demographics of charity and giving in the US. (I write this from a Delta Sky Club, having been let in by a stranger as a guest. “Merry Christmas,” he said.) Brooks focuses on disparities in giving, showing that religious Americans give significantly more charity than secular Americans. One interesting section breaks down the intersection of religion and politics. He divides Americans into four groups: religious conservatives, religious liberals, secular liberals, and secular conservatives. Below I gather some highlights from Brooks’s demography. As you read the profiles, focus not only on the giving trends, but also on the demographic information. I have put this information in bold for emphasis.

Religious Conservatives

  • earn household incomes on a par with the national average, are racially comparable to the country as a whole, and possess average levels of education.
  • are most likely to give away money each year (91 percent). They give away the most dollars per year ($2,367 versus $1,347 per household in the country as a whole). Religious conservatives are more likely to give to secular charities than the overall population.

Religious Liberals

  • are by far the most likely to belong to minority groups. Fully 23 percent of religious liberals are African American–a level about twice as high as any other of the four groups, or of the population in general.
  • are about as likely to give to secular causes as religious conservatives (91 percent), but give away about 10 percent less money than religious conservatives each year.

Secular Liberals

  • are younger (forty versus forty-nine, on average), more likely to be single (63 percent likely, versus 35 percent for religious conservatives), and have a considerably higher level of education (46 percent have college degrees or higher, compared with 33 percent of religious conservatives).
  • have the highest average income of the four groups, and are the most likely to be white.
  • are 19 percentage points less likely to give each year than religious conservatives, and 9 points less likely than the population in general. They give away less than a third as much money as religious conservatives, and about half as much as the population in general, despite having higher average incomes than either group.

Secular Conservatives

  • are the least charitable group. They give only about a quarter as many dollars as religious conservatives ($661 per year, on average).

  • tend to be single men of low income and little education. On average, they earn 10 percent less per year than the population average. They are 48 percent more likely to drop out of high school than the population, and 26 percent less likely to hold a college degree.

These trends in giving also hold true for volunteering, communal participation, and informal acts of charity (for example, letting someone cut in a line or helping a homeless person). These are, of course, generalizations, but the numbers scream with disparities. Frankly, anyone with a few close friends from each of these groups should not be surprised by these statistics.

If you take a close look at the demographics presented above, you will see the two warring factions driving America’s toxic politics. More specifically, uneducated single men and educated white elites come from both the conservative and liberal secular electorates. Secular conservatives broadly resemble the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called them. Secular liberals resemble the SJW snowflakes, as they are called in conservative circles. Meanwhile, Brooks notes, “Demographically, they [religious liberals] most resemble the religious conservatives.” A recent Pew Poll tells a similar story. Dividing American politics by religiosity helps us identify the participants in both political parties who match with the demographics that correlate with toxic politics.

Of course, these connections are not hard-and-fast rules. But religious Americans ground their identity more in their religion than in their politics. This means less polarization and also allows for honest criticism of politicians they support. Few evangelical Christians, for example, believe in supporting Trump with all their heart and all their soul and all their might.

So, to borrow a phrase from a secular political tradition, what is to be done?

Those who find themselves despairing at both sides of politics are the very Americans who should engage with politics. These are the Americans who see beyond power grapples; these are the Americans who will fix our political climate.

Our politics should be checked by a sobering religiosity which puts the good above power, checked by a God Who transcends the contentions of mankind. American political traditions should preserve the status of Americans as a religious, God-fearing people. And these traditions must be observed not in hypocrisy, but in earnest. When a politician says “God bless America,” we may feel a warm, fuzzy feeling, but we must also humble ourselves in remembering that America’s prosperity comes from God’s blessing.

Religious liberals, the smallest (and decreasing) quadrant, should become more involved. They must make examples out of their giving hearts to reform the liberal agenda to put true empathy over hypocritical moralizing. Religious conservatives should take control of their party, refusing to capitulate to the power-driven politics of winning. Those who cannot vote for disagreeable candidates with a clear conscience should engage with their political parties and support better candidates.

Politics should not become all-consuming for religious Americans, and religion should not be used as a tool for political change. The government should not enforce religion on its citizens. But Americans should let their religion inform their politics.

I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.

–Abraham Lincoln, Trenton, New Jersey, February 21, 1861


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