Donald Trump’s Rise Shows Religion Is Losing Its Power In U. S. Politics

Donald J. Trump attended a Presbyterian church service while campaigning in Muscatine, Iowa, in January. (Credit: Eric Thayer for The New York Times)
Donald J. Trump attended a Presbyterian church service while campaigning in Muscatine, Iowa, in January. (Credit: Eric Thayer for The New York Times)

Donald Trump, no doubt, is the most confounding candidate produced by the American political system in decades. He offers enormous tax cuts, as any bona fide Republican candidate must. But he also wants to leave Social Securityas it is.”

He says he hates Obamacare, but offers “concepts of Medicare” to care for “people that can’t take care of themselves.” He has gutted the standard Republican position that favors freer trade.

The most surprising aspect about Mr. Trump’s solid appeal among Republican primary voters, though, may be what it says about the waning place of religion in American politics and the revival of a populism centered more on economic nationalism and white working-class discontent.

“It is intriguing that we have some notable challenges to the political establishment that are not coming from a traditional American religious place but from a surprisingly secular tradition,” said David Voas, head of the social science department at University College London.

Is this a sign that Americans are finally losing their religious spirit, following the longtime trend in other advanced nations? At the very least, it does suggest that Republicans’ longstanding strategy of building majorities for their anti-tax platform by appealing to working-class voters’ Christian morals has lost a lot of its power.

Donald Trump is not just the least religious Republican in the field, he is perceived as less religious than Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders, who clearly resembles a secular European social democrat.

Given Mr. Trump’s serial marriages, the coarse sexual references and his multiple positions on abortion, it’s no surprise that fewer than half of Republicans view him as religious, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center this year.

And still, his economic populism, reminiscent of the nationalist stance of European right-wingers like Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, has so far overpowered the openly devout message of Ted Cruz, the most deep-dyed conservative still in the race. Indeed, Mr. Trump has outflanked the standard bearers of the traditional religious right even among the most devout voters.

Americans remain exceptionally religious, compared to people in other rich nations. American scholars argue this is largely because the sharp line between church and state in the United States fostered vibrant competition among different religious flavors, which kept the flame alive.

But religion’s appeal has been eroding in the United States since the end of the 1980s, according to research by Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley. In 1987, only one in 14 American adults expressed no religious preference. By 2012, the share had increased to one in five.

Scholars like Professor Voas argue Americans are undergoing a process similar to what has happened in Europe, where secular institutions took over many of the jobs once performed by the church. Professors Hout and Fischer argue, instead, that the erosion reflects the shocks and aftershocks from the 1960s: like churches’ censureship of premarital sex and young people’s growing acceptance of homosexuality.

“Organized religion gained influence by espousing a conservative social agenda that led liberals and young people who already had weak attachment to organized religion to drop that identification,” they wrote. By 2012, 36 percent of liberals preferred no religion, compared to just 7 percent of conservatives.

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SOURCE: The New York Times

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