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.”
WHEN most liberals hear the words “third party,” they have nasty flashbacks to Ralph Nader’s spoiler campaign in 2000. The history buffs among them might think of the populist Greenback Party’s feckless protests against the gold standard in the 19th century or the five presidential campaigns of the Socialist Eugene V. Debs — the last of which, in 1920, he ran from prison.
Third parties seem out of touch with reality, the refuge of idealists with dreams too fragile for the trenches of major party politics. But Democratic skeptics, at least, shouldn’t be too quick to judge. One state is now on the way to single-payer health care, and a third party deserves much of the credit.
Three years ago, Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, signed a bill creating Green Mountain Care: a single-payer system in which, if all goes according to plan, the state will regulate doctors’ fees and cover Vermonters’ medical bills. Mr. Shumlin is a Democrat, and the bill’s passage is a credit to his party. Yet a small upstart spent years building support for reform and nudging the Democrats left: the Vermont Progressive Party. The Progressives owe much of their success to the oddities of Vermont politics. But their example offers hope that the most frustrating dimensions of our political culture can change, despite obstacles with deep roots in American history.
WHEN Jennifer Maggio was in her early 20s, she was raising two children by herself on the $750 per month that she earned as a manager at a furniture store in Vidalia, La. She went to college at night and was living in subsidized housing when she felt God urge her to make an unexpected choice. “I started tithing. To tithe while I was living on food stamps — that was a tough decision,” she said. “The conversation I had with God was: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is about the pastor wanting a new truck.’ ”
She dropped a $75 check in the offering bucket. “I kept doing it, and the bills continued to get paid.” Within a year, she got a job offer from a bank in Baton Rouge and “went from food stamps to a six-figure income,” she said. Ms. Maggio credits God, not government assistance, with helping her climb out of poverty. She later married and founded Life of a Single Mom Ministries to help other women. She hates talking politics, but says she has always been an “extremely conservative Republican.”
Politically speaking, Ms. Maggio is unusual: in 2008 and 2012, three-quarters of single mothers voted for President Obama. It’s tempting to dismiss a Republican single mom as a dupe persuaded to vote against her own interests, a victim of what Thomas Frank called “the politics of self-delusion.”
This assessment is misguided. One polling firm called single mothers “the largest progressive voting bloc in the country,” but Democrats should not take single moms for granted, even as Republicans have shown that they would rather sabotage the basic functions of government than extend the social safety net.
The single mothers who reject the politics of their peers tell us something about the limits of the liberal effort to redefine cultural ideals. The left has recast marriage not as a lifelong contract, but as a civil right, a choice, one of many paths to empowerment. An old-fashioned covenant that binds two people in mutual submission sits uneasily in a secular ideology that holds personal autonomy as the highest good.
IMMIGRATION reform is not a liberal idea. It is good, old-fashioned conservative policy — at least that’s what its supporters want the Republican faithful to believe.
The Republican Party has “historically been pro-immigration,” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, said after the 2012 election. The conservative National Immigration Forum declares that America needs reform that “celebrates freedom and values hard work.”
Some of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the new immigration bill have come from traditional evangelicals, who insist that reform “respects the God-given dignity of every person.” Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who was among the 300 evangelicals who went to Washington last month for “a day of prayer and action for immigration reform,” said that once Republicans toned down their anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters would follow.
“They’re social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial,” he told me. Mr. Land pointed to Senator Marco Rubio as the face of this “new conservative coalition.”
“Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations,” Mr. Land added. “The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity — and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?”
The Christian right may be too optimistic about any change in the political sympathies of Latinos. Increasing numbers tell pollsters they favor same-sex marriage, for example. But the real surprise is that evangelicals may be wrong about the unyielding conservatism of their own movement.
THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.
Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.
In 1968, Mark Hatfield, one of America’s most prominent evangelical politicians, wanted to abolish the draft and clandestinely wore a Eugene McCarthy pin under his lapel. A Republican senator from Oregon, Hatfield had fans in evangelical churches around the country. When organizers of the 1973 National Prayer Breakfast invited him to address Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other conservative luminaries (the Vietnam War was a “national sin and disgrace,” he told them), he based his remarks on a text written by a renegade seminarian named Jim Wallis — a former member of Students for a Democratic Society who believed that being “pro-life” meant hating war and poverty as much as abortion.
If the historian David R. Swartz is right, Hatfield, Wallis and their supporters were not just forgettable anomalies in the inexorable rise of the Christian right. The early 1970s were not “the Reagan Revolution-in-waiting,” he contends, but an unsettled era when evangelicals’ ambivalent political impulses had not yet hardened and left-leaning activists had prospects nearly as bright as their peers on the right. Today, in the midst of Capitol Hill gridlock and the slugging matches of partisan super PACs, “Moral Minority” jogs our historical memory and challenges our imagination: not so long ago, the American political landscape was very different.
AS the 2012 presidential race enters the homestretch, both parties vow that this election is not just a choice between different policies. It is a cosmic decision between “two different visions, two different value sets,” as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Behind the competing catchphrases lurks another contest, one that illuminates this war of worldviews. It is a tale of two Catholicisms.
In Charlotte, N.C., the Democrats challenged the altar-boy-cum-vice-presidential-nominee Paul D. Ryan’s bid for the office of Catholic in chief. They invited Sister Simone Campbell, a social activist and one of the “nuns on the bus” who toured the country protesting Mr. Ryan’s budget, to assure voters that Republican fiscal proposals violate Catholic teachings as well as “our nation’s values.” The crowd roared — who doesn’t love a feisty nun? Yet her appearance seemed largely symbolic. Mr. Biden, the most prominent Catholic on the convention roster, made no mention of his faith. While Republicans have celebrated Mr. Ryan’s religion ever since Mitt Romney chose his “faithful Catholic” running mate last month, the Democrats weren’t sure that they wanted God in the campaign at all, let alone the Church of Rome.
Allowing Republicans to claim the mantle of Catholicism might cost the Democrats the election. As commentators have noted, Catholics may be the nation’s most numerous swing voters. Over the past few decades, Democratic leaders have alienated voters in one of the party’s historically strong constituencies. Through a series of ideological moves and cultural misjudgments, they have also cut themselves off from a rich tradition of liberal Catholic thought at a time when American culture requires politicians to articulate a mission that inspires religious and secular voters alike.