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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Christian Nation?

John McCain was down in the polls -- way down -- in the fall of 2007. Far from being the presumptive nominee, it was widely believed that the Straight Talk Express had been sidelined and was on its way out. So John, believing he had very little to lose, decided to kiss a little evangelical right butt.

McCain had been mending fences with the religious right for some time, carefully distancing himself from his reputation as a "maverick" and recasting himself as a typical Republican robot with no opinions outside the right wing orthodoxy. An interview with Beliefnet offered a golden opportunity.

Q: A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation. What do you think?

A: I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.

All that poll really proved was that 55% of Americans had never read the Constitution -- if they had, they'd realize that it doesn't talk about Christianity at all. McCain, with his decades as a Senator, couldn't honestly make the same claim of ignorance. Clearly, he was lying to tell the religious right what they wanted to hear. John McCain had entered that self-confirming right wing echo chamber. "Yes," he might as well have said, "Whatever Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell say about the Constitution is true."

And that echo-chamber didn't waste any time bouncing McCain's message back. That's the way this whole thing works -- you sday something you wish was true, wait for someone to agree, then point to them as independent proof of your statement. You say something, wait for the echo, then say, "See? He agrees."

"The fact that the left-wing Muslim groups vociferously reacted against McCain's remarks, just added validity to his comments, and indeed value for his presidential nomination hopes," wrote Christian Coalition blogger Jim Backlin. That Muslim groups objected to McCain's comment that he wouldn't vote for a Muslim in that same interview -- not the "Christian nation" comment specifically -- is beside the point. Muslims are evil and, if they don't like someone, that someone must be on the right track. The echo chamber sometimes works in reverse.

But more important than where this "Christian nation" crap comes from is the question of why it's manufactured at all. Why do you need to pretend that law calls for a Christian government when officeholders are already overwhelmingly Christian? Do they believe that Americans' faith is so weak that they have to trick them into thinking they're required to be Christian?

The answer to that may be yes -- and that worry is not without cause. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, as reported by Associated Press, shows that the evangelical right has good reason for concern about their future.

The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey finds.

The study released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is unusual for it sheer scope, relying on interviews with more than 35,000 adults to document a diverse and dynamic U.S. religious population.

While much of the study confirms earlier findings — mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing — it also provides a deeper look behind those trends, and of smaller religious groups.

Despite efforts by evangelicals to reach those they call "the unchurched" -- i.e., unaffiliated Christians -- that segment of the population is growing, not shrinking.

"The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimates the United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping," AP reports. "More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found. Factoring in moves from one stream or denomination of Protestantism to another, the number rises to 44 percent."

In fact, previous census figures show that Christianity as a whole is headed toward becoming a minority religion by 2030, making up about 49% of the population. How do you ensure Christian political dominance in a nation without a Christian majority?

Convince everyone that it's the law.

This whole "Christian nation" myth is the religious right making an end run around its own failure to reach the unchurched. "The religious demographic benefiting the most from this religious churn is those who claim no religious affiliation," AP reports. "People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin."

To make matters worse for the religious right, the next generation isn't moving their way. A quarter of Americans between 18 and 29 are unaffiliated. The evangelical movement is already seeing a drastic decline in influence. The presidential campaign shows that. The candidate making the most noise about abortion and gays and evolution is the absolutely certain to lose Mike Huckabee. Other Uber-Christian candidates like Sam Brownback and Mitt Romney likewise went nowhere. The once mighty religious right is barely registering in the debate.

Given this, it's no surprise that they'd want to convince everyone that they don't just have a place in government, but that they are the government -- by law and in the Constitution. Whether or not it's true is irrelevant.

The problem is that the religious right is in a race against reality. This "Christian nation" propaganda is fast becoming a moot point. Is it possible to be a Christian nation in a nation where the majority is heathen? Even if everyone believed it was enshrined in the Constitution, the United State's institutional Christianity would only be nominal. Christians would not have more influence because of it.

So John McCain, once so eager to kiss up to the religious right, barely talks about religion anymore. The movement is dying and history is moving on. The US, founded as a secular nation, is returning to her roots after a fit of religious hysteria.


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