The delayed UK 2021 Census showed that the number of those identifying themselves as Christian had continued to fall and was now less than half of the overall population. A flurry of news stories brought tidings of secular joy at further evidence of Christianity’s decline, and variations on ‘oh dear’ from the different Churches.
British politicians still generally don’t ‘do God’, nor are they likely to. In this sense they may reflect public opinion, though the present Prime Minister does Diwali. Pan to President Trump outside St. John’s Episcopal church parish house, Washington, Bible in hand. US politicians, predominantly Republicans, for a variety of reasons increasingly do God.
The US Democrats might look enviously at Britain’s comfortable secularity. Evangelicals make up almost a quarter of the US population of 332 million and dominate American Protestantism. They share related commitments and attitudes: to biblical literalism, rejection of ideas other than their own, and for many, strange ideas about the end of the world alongside core Christian beliefs. In November 2020, White evangelical Christians voted 84% for Trump - up from 77% in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. The USA is in fact becoming more secular like the UK. Of people born in the US between 1981 and 1996 the respected Pew Foundation reported that 40% said they had no religion. Yet US politics are becoming more religious.
Since Reagan (1981-1989), Republicanism has increasingly appropriated the themes of its powerful evangelical backers. Thanks to the Republicans a package of religious issues, notably abortion, gay marriage, and gender, forced their way into Congress and the Supreme Court. In the 1970s abortion, Roe versus Wade, was essentially a Catholic issue. It had become a central evangelical concern by the 2020 Presidential election arousing passionate responses on both sides of the argument.
Both the leading British Parties in their pursuit of electoral advantage look over their shoulder at the tactics of the two American Parties. Both have used data collection and targeted campaigning. The Conservative Party has picked up a trick or two from the Republican Party, its wrecking ball tactics, its voter suppression. The Elections Act 2022 demands visual ID on the spurious grounds eliminating virtually non-existent identity fraud. It will have the effect of discouraging minority, younger and poorer voters.
Much of our contemporary insecurity derives from the rise and increased threat of unaccountable, authoritarian regimes, but also from the undermining of democracy by the politics of irrationality, by culture wars, lies and deceit. The takeover of American Protestantism by evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity decoupled faith from reason providing a religious antechamber to QAnon. US democracy itself barely survived the stress-test set by Trump. America’s slide in the last decade into near insurrection at the beginning of 2021, the British government’s rapid descent into the politics of factional farce, give a whole new meaning to the ‘special relationship’.
David Hollinger in his recently published Christianity’s American Fate presents US Christianity as a religious ‘two party’ system mapped onto the two political Parties. He labels the old mainstream Churches ‘ecumenical’: open to multi-culturalism and dialogue, at ease with enlightenment and science, committed to social justice - yet finding its congregations drifting away. The alternative - well-defended, populist, aggressive and burgeoning - Christian communities are immersed in culture wars set on winning at all costs. Reality is, of course, more nuanced with Jim Wallis’ evangelical Sojourners notable for its ‘social Gospel’. Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback mega-church has charted new territory (see the success of his book A Purpose Driven Life) helping minorities and outsiders and working on AIDS and recovery from addiction.
Roman Catholics like the evangelicals now make up nearly a quarter of the US population thanks to the growing number of Hispanic Americans. According to the Pew Foundation, the largely Catholic 32 million Hispanic voters split one third Republican two-thirds Democrat. But interestingly six out of ten White Catholics who attend mass monthly, or more often, voted for Trump in 2020 against 36% for their fellow Catholic Jo Biden. At this time there were 22 Catholic senators of whom 10 were Republican and 12 Democrat compared to 1965 when all but two of the then 14 Catholic senators were Democrats.
Because of the size and wealth of the US Church, the Catholic Church globally has felt the backwash from this growing politicisation. The movement against the present Pope, motivated both by the style and inclusive openness of his papacy, outside the Vatican is primarily US-based. In August 2018 Archbishop Carlo Viganò the Apostolic Nuncio (Vatican ambassador) to the USA from 2011-2016, led attempts to discredit Francis and push him to resign. Viganò was supported by some two dozen US bishops.
The recently elected leading officials of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) give some idea of the Pope’s problem. The President is Timothy Broglio, Archbishop to the military services, who in contradiction to the Pope’s message to get vaccinated called for a waiver for troops not wanting COVID vaccination. Broglio has also linked clerical homosexuality to sex abuse scandals, a widely rejected assertion.
The Vice-President is Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore chairman of the committee on Pro-Life Activities. Victims of the Maryland clerical sex abuse have called for his resignation. Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma is chairman of the key Committee on Priorities and Plans and current Secretary to the Conference. He has spoken out in favour of abolishing the death penalty but has also expressed “deepest respect for Archbishop Viganò and his personal integrity."
The former President of the USCCB, Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Coakley both hold advisory roles to a wealthy business association, NAPA (founded in a late 19th century in a small North California town of that name), which attracts super-rich members with strong right- wing views and Republican sympathies. It promotes in sympathy with powerful figures in the US hierarchy an ecclesial-political agenda opposed in most ways to Pope Francis' vision for the Church and Society, expressed in his speeches and encyclicals and shared to a great extent here in Britain by the Anglican and Catholic leaderships.
The late Pope Benedict who died on New Year’s Eve will perhaps best be remembered in Britain for his Westminster Hall speech on 17 December 2010 about the moral underpinnings of democracy. He found sympathetic listeners. “I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization”. A message the USA Republicans would do well to heed.
Thanks to the theological common-sense and caution of the Evangelical Alliance in Britain, the Anglican Church and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales as well as the Scottish Bishops, we have avoided the dangerous ecclesial-political convergence of the USA. Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism remain wedded to both faith and reason and have an important contribution to make to our weakened democracies.
The New Year holds many problems for both President Biden and Pope Francis who face heavy pressures that are related but different. The erosion of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic needs urgent remedy. And in 2023 commentators should resolve to remember that while numbers matter when it comes to church membership, numbers, vide the USA, are not necessarily a sign of good health.
See TheArticle 04/01/2023