Chapel Hill, N.C. — The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump featured plenty of magical thinking, but it was a nonreligious event. Neither candidate mentioned God. The second debate may be no different: Voters see Mr. Trump as either a prophet or an angel of death, but the only religion that interests him is his own faith in his “winning temperament.”
As to Mrs. Clinton: The news stories that have dogged her — the email server; Benghazi; the “basket of deplorables” quote — don’t have much to do with religion. She has been private about her Methodist faith, and no earnest Sunday school memories will sway voters who view her as fundamentally untrustworthy.
Yet religion helps explain why Mrs. Clinton has struggled to unite the Democratic base. I’m not talking about the faithful who look for the resurrection of Bernie Sanders, but a real left-wing religious revival. Its prayers, preaching and theological battles look very much like the revival that energized the civil rights movement a half-century ago. Today’s revival is divided against itself, as it was back then.
This revival’s more moderate leaders can’t corral the young radicals who want revolution and who reject not just the Democratic nominee, but the basic assumptions of modern politics. The clash goes deeper than policy or strategy. It is a theological rift: Is religion founded in submission to unchanging principles or is it a protean revolutionary force, a tool of self-empowerment?
IN American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”
These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.
The imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates that “I feel like” became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for “I think” or “I believe” only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve, and curmudgeons like me are always taking umbrage at some new idiom. But make no mistake: “I feel like” is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.
THE anti-gay ideology that has long held sway in American evangelicalism seems to be crumbling. Conservatives’ insistence that the Bible proscribes homosexual acts and their claim that protecting gay rights infringes on their own religious liberty have depended on another assumption not found in Scripture: that homosexuality is not a biologically rooted identity but a sinful temptation, an addiction that one must control.
The noisy backlash against the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage cannot mask the signs that this assumption is losing its grip. The most conspicuous indication that something is changing came in 2013 while Obergefell v. Hodges was still working its way up to the court. Alan Chambers, the president of the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, apologized to L.G.B.T. people for causing them “pain and hurt” and shut down his organization.
Exodus’s collapse was a media spectacle. It was a huge blow to those who insist that same-sex attraction can be “cured,” and an encouragement to the growing number of evangelicals, particularly millennials, who support L.G.B.T. rights. But some young Christians resist the notion that embracing queer sexuality as an identity — not a disease — permits them to embrace homosexual relationships.
These dissenters proudly call themselves gay or queer or bisexual. But they have turned to ideologies outside the conventional boundaries of evangelicalism — including Catholic theology and queer theory — to argue against both conservatives and liberals. They insist that the church should welcome gay people, yet still condemn homosexual acts. They have provoked a dispute that gets to the heart of the culture wars: a debate over the meaning of vocation that reveals the tension between modern assumptions about living a full life and older ideas about the sacrifices God’s calling requires.
LAST fall, as student activists around the country protested racism on their campuses, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas dismissed secular universities as havens for “leftist, coddled kids.” The protests proved that these schools teem with “psychotic Marxists,” declared “The Daily Caller,” a conservative website.
When conservative Christians map the culture wars, they cast secular universities to the far left periphery — the region that medieval cartographers would have marked “here be dragons.” A cottage industry of books with titles like “How to Stay Christian in College” has long warned pious 18-year-olds that college is a place where the “Prince of Deception” will set “spiritual snares.”
American evangelicals have a venerable tradition of painting the ivory tower as the bastion of unbelief and leftist ideology. As mainstream culture becomes more diverse and moves further away from traditional Christian teachings on matters like sexuality, we might expect evangelical students on elite secular campuses to feel more embattled than ever. Yet that’s not what I found when I spoke to a range of students and recent graduates.
Contrary to conservatives’ warnings about the oppressive secularism of the modern university, these students have taken advantage of their campuses’ multicultural marketplace of ideas. They have created a network of organizations and journals that engage non-Christian ideologies head-on. It’s true that many schools’ nondiscrimination policies have made life more difficult for Christian ministries that require student leaders to assent to a statement of faith. But some students have seized on this challenge as an opportunity.
BEFORE the semester began earlier this fall, I went to check out the classroom where I would be teaching an introductory American history course. Like most classrooms at my university, this one featured lots of helpful gadgets: a computer console linked to an audiovisual system, a projector screen that deploys at the touch of a button and USB ports galore. But one thing was missing. The piece of technology that I really needed is centuries old: a simple wooden lectern to hold my lecture notes. I managed to obtain one, but it took a week of emails and phone calls.
Perhaps my request was unusual. Isn’t the old-fashioned lecture on the way out? A 2014 study showed that test scores in science and math courses improved after professors replaced lecture time with “active learning” methods like group work — prompting Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has long campaigned against the lecture format, to declare that “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing.” Maryellen Weimer, a higher-education blogger, wrote: “If deep understanding is the objective, then the learner had best get out there and play the game.”
In many quarters, the active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in the most recent chorus of calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion. These criticisms intersect with a broader crisis of confidence in the humanities. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising in the eyes of administrators, politicians and higher-education entrepreneurs.
In the humanities, there are sound reasons for sticking with the traditional model of the large lecture course combined with small weekly discussion sections. Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.
DONALD TRUMP’S high poll numbers among evangelicals have preoccupied the media for months. But the most interesting thing about his Christian fans is not their willingness to overlook the sins of a casino playboy. Evangelicals happily voted for a divorced man of uncertain faith once before: Ronald Reagan. What is most striking is that Mr. Trump’s campaign has exposed a rift within evangelicalism — a split between those calling for culture war as usual and those who say Christians must adjust to life as a minority in American Babylon.
Some evangelical leaders are content to follow old models. They promise, as Jerry Falwell and his colleagues in the Moral Majority once did, that Christians are destined to lead the nation in “a moral and conservative revolution.” David Barton, the activist and pseudo-historian who helped vandalize Texas textbook guidelines, promises that “America can reclaim greatness” if its citizens recover their Christian heritage. He now runs a super PAC backing Ted Cruz, but his pledge echoes Mr. Trump’s vow to “make America great again” — a slogan that resonates with evangelical voters who feel the country slipping out of their grip.
Yet some evangelical elites are rebelling against this vision. They have not shifted leftward, but they disown both the legacy of the Moral Majority and the populist demagogy of Mr. Trump in favor of a softer, more sophisticated approach to activism. They note the shrinking ranks of American Christianity but say that evangelicals shouldn’t kick and scream. They should embrace their new role as a moral minority instead.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — ONE Sunday last month, I walked into an auditorium past greeters and a table loaded with coffee, fruit and cookies. Onstage two young men tuned their guitars. A blank screen hung down, a silent signal that not knowing the words would be no excuse for not singing along. But this was no typical church service.
I’d come for Sunday Assembly, a godless alternative to church founded in London in 2013. A cheerful woman with a name tag stood and promised a crowd of about 40 people “all the fun parts of church but without any religion, and with fun pop songs.” The band led us in secular “hymns” like “Walking on Sunshine” and “Lean on Me.” The day’s guest preacher, a Ph.D. candidate from Duke, described his research on bonobos and the biological roots of our species’ instinct to help one another — the “seeds of a nature that is good,” he told us.
Is this what secular humanism — the naturalist worldview that many nonbelievers embrace and religious conservatives fear — looks like in practice? In one sense, secular humanism is a style of fellowship intended to fill the church-shaped void, but it is also a strand of the liberal intellectual tradition that attempts to answer the canard that godlessness means immorality.
It’s no secret that nonbelievers still grapple with social stigma. Last year, more than half of Americans told pollsters that they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate if they learned he was an atheist. The nonbelievers I met were eager to challenge the stereotype of atheists as ill-tempered nihilists whose only sacred tradition is picketing the City Hall Christmas tree.
WHEN Theresa Bixby, 63, learned that she had breast cancer four years ago, she reacted as many Americans do. “One of my first thoughts was, ‘will they pay?’ ” she said. But she wasn’t talking about a conventional insurance plan. She lost hers when she left her full-time position for part-time work at her church in Greenville, S.C. She was worried about the program that she had joined six months earlier: Christian Healthcare Ministries.
Christian Healthcare Ministries is not an insurance company. It is a nonprofit “health care sharing ministry” based in Barberton, Ohio. The cost of membership is far lower than the rates of traditional insurance policies — $45 a month for the cheapest plan — but the ministry makes no guarantees of payment. Members send their monthly “gift” to an escrow account, which disburses payments for eligible medical bills, excluding costs like routine physicals, continuing treatment for pre-existing conditions or procedures that members have voted to exclude, like care for pregnancies outside wedlock.
Each time Ms. Bixby visited her hospital for tests or chemotherapy, she explained that she was a self-pay patient and a member of a cost-sharing ministry. Sometimes the receptionist nodded; sometimes she got a blank stare. The hospital never denied her treatment, but “I was getting a two-inch stack of bills every month, and threats that they would take me to collections,” she told me.
Christian Healthcare Ministries assigned her case to a “member advocate,” who negotiated discounts on her fees. These counted toward Ms. Bixby’s $5,000 deductible, so she paid out of pocket only for office visits. In the end, the ministry persuaded the hospital to lop $220,900 off a bill of $301,540 and reimbursed or paid directly the remaining $80,640.
Despite stories like this, organizations such as Christian Healthcare Ministries claim a modest membership. The four main cost-sharing ministries in the United States have about 340,000 members. Regulators in several states have raised concerns that these ministries offer the illusion of insurance while sidestepping the Affordable Care Act’s baseline standards of coverage and skirting requirements that apply to conventional insurance companies, like minimum cash reserves. Nonetheless, membership in the ministries has been growing, particularly since the act granted them an exemption as one of the only ways to avoid the law’s mandate to buy insurance without paying a fine.
But the debate over consumer protections may disguise a more interesting question: Could this model scale up?
An avalanche of insta-biographies follows every papal conclave. Catholics and outsiders alike are eager to understand the man who is, in effect, the only monarch with meaningful power remaining in the Western world. But almost two years after Pope Francis’ election, many are keen for deeper analysis of this “pope for the poor” known for holding freewheeling news conferences and driving his own 30-year-old Renault.
Austen Ivereigh’s “The Great Reformer” is no insta-book, but a gracefully written and meticulously researched account of Francis’ life. It aims to exonerate the pope once and for all from the charges of his critics, and to correct both liberals and conservatives who misunderstand his “radicalism.” It succeeds almost entirely. His defense of Francis sometimes shades into hagiography, but it is the best English-language biography of the pope to date, and — more important — raises provocative questions about the future of the church and the relationship between religion and secular modernity.
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Over the last few weeks it has become fashionable to ridicule this election as a jumble of debates that don’t resonate with the average American. The Washington Post deemed these midterms “kind of — with apologies to Seinfeld — an election about nothing,” and many other journalists have echoed the comparison. The joke is an old one: “as the reigning cliché had it, 2002 was the ‘Seinfeld’ election — an election about nothing,” Frank Rich wrote in these pages 12 years ago.
To say that an election is “about nothing” means that no coherent national narrative has emerged — other than the media’s obsession with the tight race for control of the Senate. Pundits and pollsters have published reams of charts predicting the final tally, but this obsession with data has further fragmented the story rather than explained what a Republican takeover would mean. Journalists have said comparatively little about what the party might do if it wins.
In my state of North Carolina, the neck-and-neck contest between the Democratic senator Kay Hagan and the Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House, seems to turn on one question. Who has provoked more voter outrage: the federal government or the state legislature? But this notoriously ugly and expensive race may help explain what the 2014 midterm elections are really about. The answer is not “nothing.”