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.
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.
The secular media usually ignores the thousands of pastors, missionaries and church volunteers who gather every summer for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. This year is different. Everyone from PBS to the Huffington Post is buzzing with anticipation — and not because they are awaiting the tedious discussion of committee reports and budgets necessary to manage the country’s largest evangelical denomination. The reason for all the excitement is this: the 2012 convention, which opens Tuesday in New Orleans, will elect a black man as president for the first time in Southern Baptist history. This is no small thing for a denomination that separated in 1845 from its northern brethren in order to defend the right of Southern slaveholders to serve as missionaries.
For the past three and a half years, Republicans have struggled to explain a great conundrum. If they are the party of authentic America with a mystical connection to the will of the people, then how, exactly, did Barack Obama get elected president?
Some Republicans have come up with an answer that allows them to avoid facing the unpleasant reality of their own party’s failures: Obama must be a great deceiver. He won the White House by subterfuge.
Claims that Obama concealed nonnative birth or faith in Islam failed to gain mainstream traction, but conservatives like Sean Hannity were more successful in labeling Obama as covertly “anti-American” based on his association with the incendiary pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. By this logic, Obama was a paragon of Christian piety. He “savored” every word on Sunday mornings and would surely govern by these traitorous principles: his beliefs were dangerous because, well, he really believed them.
Last month, when prominent evangelical pastors and political activists emerged from their Texas powwow to announce that they had anointed Rick Santorum as their standard-bearer, the blogosphere pronounced the endorsement too little, too late, and kept all sights firmly on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — until this week.
Santorum’s string of victories on Tuesday took the mainstream media by surprise: he is so extreme that they have had a hard time taking him seriously. His theocratic statements seem self-caricaturing. He has asserted that the right to privacy “does not exist,” equated homosexual sex with “man on dog” relations, and compared the campaign against same-sex marriage to the war on terror.
Yet Santorum’s surge in momentum as the primary campaign moved to the evangelical heartland was a long time coming, and not because his social positions are an exercise in garden-variety bigotry. Evangelicals’ embrace of Santorum illuminates a crucial shift in American political culture: their honeymoon with the Tea Party seems to be over. They have turned away from the cries for small government and liberty — about which they have always been ambivalent — to rekindle their love affair with theocratic Catholicism. Santorum’s statements reflect not knee-jerk prejudice, but something much more powerful: philosophically reasoned prejudice, based on centuries of Roman Catholic natural law.